To protect your memory, get your walking shoes on

Dog ready to walk.

For those with memory problems, regular walking may do some good finds new research from Dr. Teresa Liu-Ambrose. According to new research published in the journal Neurology this week, performing aerobic exercises (including walking) three times per week may help preserve memory function in older people with existing cognitive impairment.

The research involved people with vascular cognitive impairment, which is the second most common cause of dementia after Alzheimer disease. In vascular cognitive impairment, problems with memory and thinking skills result from damage to large and small blood vessels in the brain.

“Studies have shown that exercise can help reduce the risk of developing memory problems, but few studies have looked at whether it can help people who already have these problems get better or keep from getting worse,” said Dr. Liu-Ambrose (pictured right).

The study involved 70 people with an average age of about 74 who had mild vascular cognitive impairment. Half of the participants took part in one-hour exercise classes three times a week for six months. The other half received information each month about vascular cognitive impairment and a healthy diet, but no information on physical activity.

All of the participants were tested before the study started, at the end of the study and again six months later on their overall thinking skills, executive function skills such as planning and organizing and how well they could complete their daily activities.

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.

“This result, while modest, was similar to that seen in previous studies testing the use of drugs for people with vascular cognitive impairment,” Dr. Liu-Ambrose said. “However, the difference was less than what is considered to be a the minimal clinically important difference of three points.”

Six months after the participants stopped the exercise program, their scores were no different than those who did not exercise. Also, there was no difference between the two groups at any point on the tests of executive function skills or daily activities.  

Those who exercised also improved compared to the other group in their blood pressure and on a test of how far they could walk in six minutes, which measured overall cardiovascular capacity.

"This is an interesting start, but more studies will be needed to determine whether exercise can be beneficial for people with mild vascular cognitive impairment. In the meantime, exercise remains a sensible recommendation for better brain health," said Dr. Liu-Ambrose.