A new interventional trial of exercise has shown a small but significant improvement in memory and thinking skills in people with early memory problems due to blood vessel damage in the brain, called vascular cognitive impairment. The results are published on 19 October in Neurology.
In this randomized controlled trial, 70 people with vascular cognitive impairment were put into two groups, one undertaking a programme of aerobic exercise and the other given education in a healthy diet but no specific information regarding exercise. The exercise programme consisted of three hour-long sessions per week and lasted for six months. The programme was led by an instructor and involved a 10min warm-up, a 40min outdoor walk and a 10min cool down.
The researchers found that people in the exercise group showed small improvements in blood pressure after six months. Exercise was associated with a small but significant improvement in one measure of memory and thinking at six months but that benefit was no longer apparent six months after the programme ended. The improvement was seen on a measure of memory and thinking ability, although the study did not show benefits on a measure of how well someone can function in their day-to-day life.
Dr Rosa Sancho, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said:
“We know that regular aerobic exercise can help improve cardiovascular health, but it has also been linked with a healthy brain and a reduced risk of developing dementia. This new study suggests that an aerobic exercise programme may be beneficial for people who already have early memory problems. While many studies have found a link between physical activity and dementia risk, few have tested specific intervention programmes and it’s positive to see new trials in this important area. This small trial suggested that benefits may only be apparent while someone is actively engaged in an exercise programme, which will need following up in longer studies. The brain only accounts for 2% of our body weight but uses 20% of our oxygen supply, showing just how much oxygen needs to circulate around the brain to keep it working well.
“With limited treatment options for people with memory decline or dementia, it’s important to explore a range of possible therapeutic approaches. Clinical trials such as this one are the best way to investigate the potential benefit of any medication or intervention, and the results will help to build a clearer picture of the potential of such an approach. Physical activity does not necessarily mean running marathons, but can involve a brisk regular walk with friends as part of a normal daily routine for people of any age.”