Physical Activity Against Cognitive Decline

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Everybody knows that exercise is very important for overall health. It is then not surprising that exercising has been shown to have positive effects on cognitive function as well. In 2011, a group of scientists explored the potential of physical activity, specifically of the aerobic type (the one sufficient to increase the heart rate and the body’s need for oxygen), as a preventive or disease-modifying treatment of dementia and brain ageing.

They identified a series of possible physical activities, which should be accessible and doable for everybody except perhaps for those with a major pulmonary disease or organ failure. These exercises range from walking, gym routines, and basketball, to home activities such as shovelling snow or raking leaves.

Physical activity has been proven to be neuroprotective, specifically by having a positive effect on atherosclerotic cerebrovascular diseases, but although those are present together with dementia, they are not exactly the same thing. The scientists therefore focused their study on whether physical activity could have a positive effect on strictly age-related dementia and mild cognitive impairment.

What they found out is that by doing on average 30 minutes of aerobic exercise at least 5 times per week, individuals experience a noticeably reduced risk of cognitive impairment and dementia, and that the progression of dementia, if already present, may even be slowed down.

The scientists theorize this to be possible in two ways. First, aerobic exercise was shown to attenuate age-related loss of synapses, while they facilitate neurotrophy and neuroplasticity. Second, aerobic exercise has been proven to have a very positive effect on cerebrovascular disease, which is a major risk factor for dementia. The scientists therefore recommend moderate-intensity physical exercise to be considered as a prescription to prevent cognitive decline, or to slow it down if already present.


source: Ahlskog, J. E. (2011), Physical Exercise as a Preventive or Disease-Modifying Treatment of Dementia and Brain Aging, Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 86(9), pp. 876-884