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Exercise may best bet for preventing cognitive decline

August 1, 2013

There are a number of early signs that could portend the development of Alzheimer's disease, but one of the most troubling is mild cognitive impairment. The condition's hallmark symptoms are changes to thinking and memory that, while serious enough for someone to notice, do not interfere with activities of daily living. While some seniors may turn to medication, certain nutrients or other remedies to stave off the progression of cognitive decline, a new study from the University of Maryland School of Public Health suggests that working out may be the best option.

Exercise the body, exercise the brain
The findings, which were recently published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, were focused on two groups of seniors who were between 60 and 88 years old. Both cohorts participated in a 12-week trial where they took part in an exercise regimen based around walking on a treadmill with the guidance of physical trainers. By the end of the study, the participants had not only improved their cardiovascular function, but they also performed better on memory tests. Additionally, researchers noted that neuroimaging revealed improved brain activity. The results could change the way health care experts address memory care.

"People with MCI are on a very sharp decline in their memory function, so being able to improve their recall is a very big step in the right direction," said study leader Dr. J. Carson Smith. 

Strengthening evidence
This is not the first time that researchers have suggested physical well-being is closely tied to mental health. In 2012, researchers at the University of Washington in St. Louis found that people who are genetically predisposed to Alzheimer's disease managed to lower their risk of brain damage by exercising. Experts speculate the benefits could come from a mechanism that reduces the amount of plaques that are typically found on the brains of Alzheimer's patients.

"What seems to happen is, during exercise, the brain turns on the enzymes that break down the amyloid," Rudolph Tanzi, director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital, told AARP.

Other options available
Although exercise appears to offer the most significant benefits, it's not the only recourse available to older adults, dietary changes can play a role as well. According to the Alzheimer's Association, foods with high levels of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin E are brain healthy options.