A six-month trial in women with early memory problems has shown that aerobic training can increase the size of the hippocampus – an area of the brain involved in learning and memory. The findings are published on 8 April in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
There is growing evidence that people who do more exercise may have a lower risk of developing dementia. To study this link in more detail, researchers in Vancouver completed a six-month randomized controlled trial involving 86 women between the ages of 70 and 80. The women involved in the trial had been diagnosed with probable mild cognitive impairment (MCI). This is a term used to describe early memory and thinking problems that are greater than expected for a person’s age but not severe enough to be diagnosed as dementia.
The volunteers were assigned to a twice-weekly programme of aerobic training through outdoor walking, resistance training, or balance and tone training involving stretches and relaxation techniques. Of the 77 volunteers who completed the trial, 29 had a brain scan at the start and end of the six month trial to study the effect on the size of the hippocampus. Participants also underwent a memory and learning test.
Researchers found that, compared with those volunteers doing balance and tone training, those on the aerobic training programme showed an increase in hippocampus volume over the course of the study. However, in contrast to previous research, this increase in volume was associated with poorer performance on the memory test.
Dr Laura Phipps of Alzheimer’s Research UK, the UK’s leading dementia research charity, said:
“There is growing evidence that regular exercise can help keep our brains healthy as we age. This small trial suggests that aerobic exercise such as brisk walking could increase the size of part of the brain involved in learning and memory, but the study did not look at the long-term effects of these changes on a person’s everyday life. The study reports an unexpected decrease in memory performance in those who showed an increase in hippocampus size, suggesting that the relationship between brain size and memory may not be straightforward.
“While there is no sure-fire way to prevent the onset of dementia, evidence suggests that there are things we can do to look after our brain. This includes eating a healthy balanced diet, taking regular exercise, not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight and keeping blood pressure and cholesterol in check.