A study by researchers in the US has found that aerobic exercise can improve memory and blood flow to the brain in older people. The paper is published on Tuesday 12 November in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.
Researchers at the University of Texas recruited 37 cognitively normal people between the ages of 57 and 75, none of whom took part in regular exercise at the start of the study. Half of the group participated in supervised hour-long exercise sessions three times a week for 12 weeks, using exercise bikes or treadmills. The remaining half did no exercise during the study period.
The participants took a series of cognitive tests to assess their memory and thinking skills before the trial, after six weeks and again after 12 weeks. At the same time, measurements of their blood flow to the brain while they were at rest were taken, and each participant had their cardiovascular fitness assessed. The researchers found those in the exercise group had better memory scores than those who did no exercise, and also had an increase in blood flow to the hippocampus – a region of the brain that suffers damage in Alzheimer’s disease, the most common cause of dementia. Participants who exercised also had better cardiovascular fitness at the end of the study.
Dr Simon Ridley, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, the UK’s leading dementia research charity, said:
“It’s not the first time research has shown that exercise can have benefits for the brain, but one strength of this study is that it relates the participants’ memory improvements to changes in blood flow to the brain. The people involved in this small, short-term study did not have dementia, and these results can’t tell us whether exercise can prevent the diseases that cause dementia. We do know that poor vascular health is a risk factor for dementia, and exercise is one way we can help to address this.
“Investment in research to understand the factors that affect brain health as we age is vital for empowering people to take action to stay healthy. While we don’t currently have a sure-fire prevention for dementia, evidence shows we can reduce the risk by eating a healthy, balanced diet, exercising regularly, not smoking and keeping blood pressure in check.”
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