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Doctor’s Orders: Exercise for the Sake of Your Brain

Exercising twice a week may improve thinking and memory skills in people with mild cognitive impairment, a form of brain dysfunction that can progress over time to a full-blown dementia as seen in Alzheimer’s disease. Those are the recommendations of new guidelines from the American Academy of Neurology, a professional organization for physicians who see patients with Alzheimer’s disease and other disorders of the brain and nervous system.

The group reviewed existing studies on mild cognitive impairment, or MCI, and concluded that exercise may indeed provide benefits. The new guidelines recommend that people with MCI exercise regularly as part of an overall approach to managing their symptoms. Studies that lasted for six months suggest twice-weekly workouts may improve memory, though longer-term studies are lacking.

“It’s exciting that exercise may help improve memory at this stage, as it’s something most people can do and of course it has overall health benefits,” said Dr. Ronald C. Petersen, the lead author of the report and a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. “Because MCI may progress to dementia, it is particularly important that MCI is diagnosed early.”

Millions of older Americans suffer from mild cognitive impairment and may struggle to complete complex tasks or have difficulty understanding information they have read. But unlike those with Alzheimer’s disease, those with MCI can still function and they are able typically to complete daily activities like dressing, bathing and eating. But many people with MCI end up getting a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia as their memory condition worsen.

The guidelines note that there are no FDA-approved medications for the treatment of MCI. Moreover, there are no high-quality, long-term studies that suggest drugs or dietary changes can improve thinking ability or delay memory problems in people with MCI.

The guidelines state that doctors may recommend brain training and other forms of cognitive training for people with MCI. There is evidence that mentally challenging activities like brain training programs or doing crossword puzzles could be beneficial in improving measures of memory and thinking skills.

Worldwide, more than 6 percent of people in their 60s have MCI, and the condition becomes more common with age. More than 37 percent of people older than 85 have it.

“If you or others have noticed that you are forgetful and are having trouble with complex tasks, you should see your doctor to be evaluated and not assume that it is just part of normal aging,” said Dr. Petersen. “Sometimes memory problems are a side effect of medications, sleep disturbances, depression, or other causes that can be treated. It is important to meet with your doctor to determine the root cause. Early action may keep memory problems from getting worse.”

By www.ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer’s Information Site. Reviewed by Marc Flajolet, Ph.D., Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University.

Source: American Academy of Neurology.

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