Even Moderate Exercise Is Good for the Brain

September 21, 2011

Want to keep the mind and memory humming? A brisk 30-minute daily walk may help to minimize the mental decline of aging and help to ward off dementia.

Those are the findings of two new reports that appeared in The Archives of Internal Medicine, a journal from the American Medical Association. Earlier research has found that regular exercise appears to be good for the brain. These results further bolster the idea that what’s good for the heart is good for the brain, and that exercise can help to curb cognitive decline in seniors. And the exercise need not be especially rigorous.

In one study, researchers from the Foundation of Public Health, Mutuelle Generale de l’Education Nationale in Paris, looked at data from 2,809 older women who either had cardiovascular disease or were at high risk for it. The women were closely monitored to assess physical activity levels over a 5 year period. During that time, they also got regular tests of memory and thinking skills.

Heart and blood vessel disease has been linked to cognitive decline in earlier studies. It may be that narrowed blood vessels may diminish blood flow, including to the brain, and lead to brain deficits. People at high risk for heart disease are also at increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease.

The French researchers found that those women who engaged in the equivalent of a brisk, 30-minute walk each day had a lower risk of memory and thinking problems. Those findings support earlier research that walking is good for brain health, and may even lower Alzheimer’s risk.

Earlier research has shown that walking six miles a week may help ward off the memory loss of aging. And other studies have suggested that activities like walking or ballroom dancing may help to prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s.

Even modest exercise, just 40 minutes or less a few times a week, has been shown to produce physical benefits in the brain. And for those who already have Alzheimer’s, one study showed that a regular walking program can slow decline and lessen the need to enter a nursing home because of behavioral problems.

Conversely, couch potatoes and those who rarely work out are at increased risk for Alzheimer’s.

The other study looked at 197 older women in their 70s. They had no memory or physical problems that prevented them from exercising at the start of the study. Their physical activity levels were monitored using a special technique that measured water loss from the body. They also were given memory tests.

Over the next two to five years, they found that those who engaged in the highest levels of physical activity were least likely to develop deficits with thinking and memory. The more active they were, the less likely they were to develop cognitive problems. But as in the other study, even moderate levels of physical activity provided benefit. “We are optimistic that even low-intensity activity of daily living may be protective against incident cognitive impairment,” the authors wrote.

These new findings “highlight a gradual but steady change in current thinking about risk factors for late-life dementias,” said Dr. Eric B. Larson of the Group Health Research Institute in Seattle, who wrote a commentary that accompanied the reports. Vascular risk factors such as limited physical activity may be modifiable and represent a way to reduce the incidence of cognitive impairment among older adults. Physical activity, growing scientific evidence suggests, could be one such avenue.

“I believe that these new findings can inform practice and the advice that we give our aging patients,” Dr. Larson said. “We can tell them that ongoing maintenance of physical activity is definitely worthwhile and likely of increasing benefit as they advance into old age.”

In addition, he stressed the need for research into “programs that promote ongoing physical activity, especially in late life.” One program in Australia that encouraged walking among older men and women, for example, found that boosting exercise levels protects against memory loss.

The findings also highlight that exercise is helpful at any age. Other studies have shown that walking in middle age means a more physically and mentally robust old age. But for seniors, too, even moderate physical activivity has benefits.

By ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer’s Information Site. Reviewed by William J. Netzer, Ph.D., Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University.


Marie-Noël Vercambre; Francine Grodstein; JoAnn E. Manson; et al: “Physical Activity and Cognition in Women With Vascular Conditions.” Archives of Internal Medicine, online edition doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2011.282, July 19, 2011.

Laura E. Middleton; Todd M. Manini; Eleanor M. Simonsick; et al: “Activity Energy Expenditure and Incident Cognitive Impairment in Older Adults. “Archives of Internal Medicine, online edition, July 19, 2011.

Eric B. Larson: Brains and Aging: Comment on “Physical Activity and Cognition in Women With Vascular Conditions” and “Activity Energy Expenditure and Incident Cognitive Impairment in Older Adults” Archives of Internal Medicine, online edition, July 19, 2011.


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