Thursday, 17 October 2013

An Exercise RX to Ward Off Cognitive Decline

In the not too distant past, doctors knew little about the value of exercise for the heart. But beginning in the 1950s, findings from a number of important studies began to demonstrate that not only was a lack of physical activity harmful to the heart, but increased physical activity was good for it.

In much the same way, researchers are in the early stages of discovering the impact of physical activity, or lack thereof, on cognitive function. Much of the evidence to date suggests that physical activity does indeed offer some protection against cognitive decline.

Still, plenty of questions remain, and among those yet to be answered: How much physical activity is enough to help? And can any amount of physical activity reverse or slow the rate of decline in those with or at risk for cognitive impairment or Alzheimer's disease?

How much physical activity is enough? Results from several studies have provided intriguing clues about the amount of physical activity needed to slow the rate of cognitive decline. For example, findings from nearly 17,000 participants in the Nurses' Health Study demonstrated that women aged 70 years and older who walked at an easy pace for at least 90 minutes per week had higher cognitive scores than those who walked less than 40 minutes per week.

The results, which were reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association, also demonstrated that women who reported the highest rates of physical activity showed significantly less cognitive decline than women who reported the lowest rates of physical activity. Perhaps most striking: The apparent cognitive benefits of greater physical activity were similar in extent to being about three years younger.

What you can do now. Clearly, there's no specific exercise prescription for preventing or reversing cognitive decline. But given the evidence that physical activity is beneficial to the brain - as well as to your heart, lungs and bones -- it's a good idea to get moving.

The American Heart Association recommendation of 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week is a reasonable goal for many people. However, if you or a family member with mild cognitive impairment has been sedentary or has other medical conditions, get the OK from the doctor before you start.

Even if you or your family member is not up to 30 minutes five days a week, any physical activity you enjoy, such as gardening, is likely to be a boon to your overall well-being.

If a family member has more advanced Alzheimer's disease, keep in mind that he or she may be able to derive benefit from some type of physical activity until the final stages. For example, simple gentle stretching exercises can help reduce muscle and joint pain and help increase and maintain flexibility. Again, be sure to consult with the doctor to determine what type of activity is safe, realistic and helpful.

(Source:  John Hopkins Health Alert, posted in Memory, 14 October 2013)

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