This Popular Exercise May Delay Onset of Alzheimer’s Disease, Says New Study

Updated: Jun. 29, 2023

New research from the University of Maryland reveals an intriguing connection between a workout you might already love, and enhanced brain function into old age.

In an era when Alzheimer’s disease is a growing concern among the aging population, a new study from the University of Maryland School of Public Health offers a ray of light. The research, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease Reports in May 2023, reveals that regular walking can significantly strengthen connections within and between three vital brain networks.

It suggests that exercise can improve memory and cognitive function, particularly in older adults with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), which often precedes Alzheimer’s disease. The study adds to the mounting evidence that physical activity is not only good for the body but is also an essential component of brain health.

One particular type of exercise seemed to show encouraging strides.

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Exercise and cognitive function

The study, led by J. Carson Smith, PhD, a kinesiology professor at the University of Maryland, examined the brain activity and memory of 33 participants aged between 71 and 85 years. These individuals, some with normal brain function and others diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, underwent a 12-week program involving supervised treadmill walking four days a week, with each session lasting 30 minutes.

To assess the impact of exercise on cognitive function, participants were asked to read and recall a short story before and after the exercise regimen. Additionally, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to measure changes in communication within and between three critical brain networks: Default Mode Network (DMN), Frontoparietal Network, and Salience Network.

Let’s break this down:

Default Mode Network is active when the mind is at rest, such as daydreaming or thinking about past and future events. It is closely connected to the hippocampus, an area of the brain that is among the first to be affected by Alzheimer’s disease.

The Frontoparietal network involves decision-making and memory during task completion.

The Salience Network monitors the world and the various stimuli we encounter. It acts like a discerning filter, deciding what’s important enough to pay attention to. Additionally, it helps us switch between different brain networks as needed, ensuring the brain performs at its best.

The results? They were promising. After 12 weeks, the participants showed significant improvements in story recall abilities. In addition, brain activity was stronger and more synchronized, especially within the DMN and the Salience Network. According to Dr. Smith in a press release from the university, this indicates that exercise can induce the brain’s ability to change and adapt, which could be particularly beneficial for individuals with mild cognitive impairment.

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Future directions

The findings of this study are not only encouraging but also carry immense societal implications. As the global population ages, the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia is expected to rise. This research highlights the potential of regular exercise, even in the form of simple walking, as a non-pharmacological intervention to combat cognitive decline.

Dr. Smith explained: “Historically, the brain networks we studied in this research show deterioration over time in people with [mild cognitive impairment] and Alzheimer’s disease.” He added that these brain networks become disconnected, leading to a loss of clear thinking and memory. Strengthening these connections through exercise offers hope that physical activity may stabilize or even improve cognitive function in individuals with mild cognitive impairment. In the long term, this could potentially delay their progression to Alzheimer’s dementia.

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Moving forward, it is essential to continue researching the effects of exercise on brain health, focusing on establishing optimal exercise regimens and understanding the underlying mechanisms. Additionally, public health initiatives should emphasize the importance of physical activity as part of a holistic approach to cognitive health in older adults.

The connection between physical exercise and cognitive function is undeniable, and incorporating regular physical activity into your lifestyle may be a powerful ally in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest