Regular aerobic exercise may slow down dementia.

Regular aerobic exercise may help delay the progression of dementia in older women whose cognitive function has been affected by age, as indicated by a recent study.

A randomized controlled study tested the impact of different types of exercise on the hippocampal volume of 86 elderly women who were living independently at home but reported mild memory problems (or mild cognitive impairment [MCI]), a common risk factor for dementia. [Br J Sports Med 2013; doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2013-093184]

The women (aged 70-80) were randomized to one of three groups: the first group was assigned to a twice-weekly and hour-long exercise regime comprising aerobic training (brisk walking), the second group underwent resistance training involving lunges, squats and weights, while the third group was assigned to a balance and muscle toning exercise.

Participants were required to adhere to their respective exercise regimens over a period of 6 months. Hippocampus size was assessed at the start and the end of the 6-month period using an MRI scan, and participants’ verbal memory and learning capacity were assessed before and after using a validated test (RAVLT).

Out of the 86 women, 29 took the before and after MRI scans. The results revealed that the total volume of the hippocampus for the aerobic training group was significantly larger than the balance and muscle toning exercise group (p=0.03). There was no difference in hippocampal volume between the resistance training group and the balance and muscle toning group.

“Our study showed that aerobic training has significantly increased hippocampal volume in older women with probable MCI,” said co-author, Dr. Teresa Liu-Ambrose, Department of Physical Therapy, UBC, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

The findings suggested that aerobic exercise seemed to be able to slow down the shrinkage of the hippocampus and maintain the volume in the group of women at risk of dementia at the minimum. The researchers also recommend regular aerobic exercise to stave off mild cognitive decline.

“However, more research is needed to ascertain the relevance of exercise-induced changes in hippocampal volume on memory performance in older adults with MCI,” elaborated Liu-Ambrose.

This finding is especially important as the researchers pointed out the rising toll of dementia worldwide – one new case is diagnosed every 4 seconds – and the number of those afflicted is set to rise to more than 115 million by 2050.

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