Older patients experienced improved cognitive function when then exercised, according to a study published recently in Neurology. All patients had minor pre-existing cognitive impairment caused by mild subcortical (Figure 1) ischemic vascular cognitive impairment (SIVCI) were found to benefit from exercise. The benefits lasted only as long as the patients continued to exercise.
“We found that 3 times a week of moderate intense aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking, significantly improved cognitive function in older adults with impaired cognitive function due to disease affecting the small blood vessels in the brain,” lead researcher Teresa Liu-Ambrose, PT, PhD. Dr. Liu-Ambrose is Associate Professor in the Department of Physical Therapy at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
Study participants had been diagnosed with mental decline caused by SIVCI, which is the second most common cause of dementia after Alzheimer's disease (Figure 2), Liu-Ambrose said in a press release from the American Academy of Neurology, the publishers or Neurology.
The improvement in mental function was modest but it was similar to that seen in studies that tested medications to treat the same cause of mental decline. “However, the difference was less than what is considered to be the minimal clinically important difference,” she said.
“While future studies are needed to replicate and confirm our results, given the well-established benefits of exercise as well as the fact there are few treatment options available for people with this condition, aerobic exercise appears to be a sensible treatment option with minimal side effects and cost,” Dr. Liu-Ambrose added.
Benefits of Exercise
Study participants were aged ≥70 years (average age 74 years) with what the researchers called “slight” memory problems. Half of the participants were randomly assigned to either 1-hour exercise classes 3x/week for 6 months (Figure 3). The other half received information about mental decline and a healthy diet, but no information about physical activity.
Baseline cognitive function values were established for both groups of participants at the start and finish of the study, and again six months later. Tests evaluated overall thinking skills; executive function skills, such as planning and organizing; and how well they could cope with their daily activities. On 1 11-point test, the study participants who exercised improved almost 2 points, the study found.
Those who exercised had a small improvement on the test of overall thinking skills compared to those who did not exercise. The scores of those who exercised improved by 1.7 points compared to those who did not exercise.
However, 6 months after the exercise ended, the scores were not different between the 2 groups. And there was no difference between the groups on tests of executive function or daily activities, the researchers added.
Exercise had other benefits, the researchers found. People who exercised had lower blood pressure and did better on a test of how far they could walk in 6 minutes, which measures overall heart health. Lowering blood pressure may also help ward off mental decline, because high blood pressure is a risk factor for mental impairment, the researchers said.
Dr. Alexandra Foubert-Samier is with the Institute of Neurodegenerative Diseases at Bordeaux University in France. She said: “This study found some interesting results concerning the practice of physical activities against cognitive decline, but it must be confirmed by future studies. One must be careful about the scope of the results of this study, although it is encouraging.”
“Nevertheless, physical activity is good for health, especially for protecting against cardiovascular risk factors,” she said.