The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America estimates that roughly 5.1 million Americans suffer from the neurodegenerative disease, and the incidences of Alzheimer’s are increasing every year. It may not be a normal part of aging, but the Alzheimer’s risk doubles every five years once you hit 65. It’s estimated that by 2050, roughly 20% of the U.S. population will suffer from Alzheimer’s. That’s a pretty terrifying thought.
But what if there was a way to protect your brain against it? What if it was something as simple as walking for a few minutes every day? I’d do it, no questions asked.
A team of researchers from the University of Maryland School of Public Health found new insights into the neuroprotective benefits of exercise. They examined how walking helped to protect the brains of adults between the ages of 60 and 88, especially those already suffering from Alzheimer’s or mild cognitive impairment.
The posterior cingulate cortex (PCC)/precuneus region of the brain is a hub of neuronal networks that is responsible for passing signals not just through the brain, but the body at large. When this hub loses connectivity, memory loss occurs. One of the main causes of this connectivity loss is amyloid accumulation, one of the indicators of both mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s.
But the researchers found that 30 minutes of walking (at 50-60% MaxHR) just four times a week led to significant improvement in PCI/precuneus connectivity. Both the control (healthy) and experimental (adults with mild cognitive impairment) groups were better able to remember a memorized list of words, but the increase in brain activity was only seen among the adults with cognitive impairment.
Basically, what this means is that exercise can help to re-establish lost connections in the brain and encourage better connectivity. This could enable the brain to compensate for pathway loss resulting from Alzheimer’s. The brain could form new pathways to access and store memories, even if the primary pathways are disconnected as a result of cognitive impairment.
There is hope that exercise can also stimulate brain plasticity and restore communication in brain regions affected by Alzheimer’s disease. While the findings don’t indicate that walking can reverse cognitive impairment, it may be able to help the brain compensate for it.
What have you got to lose? Just a few hours of walking a week can make a significant difference in your brain function, so put on those walking shoes and get out of the house.
1. Theresa J. Chirles, Katherine Reiter, Lauren R. Weiss, Alfonso J. Alfini, Kristy A. Nielson, J. Carson Smith. “Exercise Training and Functional Connectivity Changes in Mild Cognitive Impairment and Healthy Elders.” Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, May 2017.