Exercise and cognitive training slow thinking declines, but vitamin D has less impact.

Exercise and cognitive training slow thinking declines, but vitamin D has less impact.

Exercise Delays the Progression to Dementia in Older Adults

By Steven Reinberg

Aging is inevitable, and as we grow older, we may start experiencing a decline in our mental abilities. However, a new study conducted in Canada suggests that regular exercise could potentially slow down the progression to dementia in older adults. The study found that five months of physical activity significantly improved the mental ability of seniors with mild cognitive impairment. Additionally, computerized training aimed at improving memory further enhanced the benefits of exercise. Surprisingly, the study did not find any effect of taking vitamin D supplements on tests of thinking and memory.

Mild cognitive impairment is the intermediate state between normal brain aging and early dementia. This period is considered optimal for implementing preventive strategies and early treatment. According to the study’s co-author, Louis Bherer, a neuropsychologist and senior scientist, as well as the director of the EPIC Center at the Montreal Heart Institute, “There is no cure for dementia, but lifestyle choices can help prevent it and partly counteract the impact of age and chronic diseases on brain health.”

To investigate the effects of different interventions, the researchers randomly assigned 175 men and women with an average age of 73 to different groups. These groups included exercise-only three times a week, exercise plus vitamin D supplements, exercise plus computerized cognitive training, and a combination of all three interventions. The exercise regimen consisted of both aerobic and resistance exercise, while the computerized cognitive training focused on memory improvement.

The results of the study showed that 20 weeks of aerobic and resistance exercise, along with computerized cognitive training, led to significant cognitive improvements in patients with mild cognitive impairment. However, the addition of vitamin D supplements did not show any significant effect. Bherer emphasized that while exercise has long been suggested for its potential protective effect on the brain and the prevention of dementia, the addition of cognitive stimulation through computerized training can enhance cognitive function in seniors already experiencing cognitive decline.

Exercise indirectly helps prevent and manage chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and obesity, all of which can negatively affect the brain. Moreover, exercise increases blood flow, including blood flow to the brain, improves vascular function, and increases brain plasticity. Bherer noted that certain studies have even shown an improved volume of the hippocampus, a key region for memory that is often affected early as we age.

The encouraging news is that it’s never too late to start exercising and reap the benefits. Bherer mentioned, “Our study suggests that even frail older adults can benefit from three months of exercise and show cognitive improvement.” Dr. Edith Burns, a professor of medicine and the director of geriatrics and palliative medicine at the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra University/Northwell in Manhasset, New York, reviewed the study and says, “This trial adds to a pretty substantial body of evidence showing that physical activity reduces the risk of developing dementia.”

Although the study showed some benefit from computerized cognitive training, regular physical activity provided the most significant benefit. “I think the biggest bang for the buck is regular physical activity,” added Burns. In fact, even with the latest drugs being touted to treat Alzheimer’s disease, regular exercise is just as effective.

Despite these compelling findings, the challenge lies in motivating older adults to engage in regular exercise. Burns acknowledged this, saying, “The challenge is how do you get people to exercise and maintain it? When you have somebody who already has some cognitive issues, that can be more challenging.” However, she emphasizes the importance of the effort, stating that regularly physically active individuals experience a relative risk reduction in the onset of dementia of close to 40%.

Burns further believes that a healthy lifestyle plays a significant role in preventing dementia in older age, perhaps even surpassing the impact of genetics. “As people age, genetics probably has less of a role in determining disease. It’s lifestyle habits that can modify genetic risk,” she explained, emphasizing the importance of being physically active and following the famous saying, “use it or lose it.”

The message is clear: regular exercise not only benefits overall health but also has a positive impact on cognitive function, potentially delaying the onset of dementia in older adults. So, let’s lace up those sneakers, stay active, and prioritize our brain health.

The report detailing this research was published online on July 20, 2023, in the journal JAMA Network Open.

More information

For more information on physical activity and cognitive decline, you can visit the Alzheimer’s Association.

Sources – Louis Bherer, PhD, neuropsychologist and senior scientist, director, EPIC Center, Montreal Heart Institute – Edith Burns, MD, professor, medicine, director, geriatrics and palliative medicine, Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra University/Northwell, Manhasset, N.Y. – JAMA Network Open, July 20, 2023, online