Toe to head
I know a lot of people who are concerned about their hearts, worried about diabetes, or pretty scared of cancer, but I’ve never met anyone who didn’t say their biggest fear is the dread of losing their mind.
But there is finally some good news for all of us. Even if your family has a history of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, or if you or someone you love has recently been diagnosed with either of these conditions, there’s something you can do today–right now–that will help slow cognitive decline.
Two years ago I wrote to you about a study that compared Alzheimer’s patients with dementia-free subjects. The examination had two parts: 1) an MRI brain scan, and 2) a treadmill test.
Results showed a significant link between physical fitness and greater volume of the hippocampus (the area of your brain that stores memory and that deteriorates with onset of Alzheimer’s). Subjects with poor fitness levels showed more pronounced signs of hippocampal atrophy.
A new Alzheimer’s study that also used MRI scans was recently conducted at the University of Pittsburgh.
Researchers recruited more than 400 older adult subjects — some with Alzheimer’s, some with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), and some with no signs of dementia. Physical activity was monitored, and each patient underwent two MRI brain scans approximately 10 years apart.
In a press release, the study’s lead author, Cyrus Raji, Ph.D., described the results: “We found that walking five miles per week protects the brain structure over 10 years in people with Alzheimer’s and MCI, especially in areas of the brain’s key memory and learning centers.”
Mental exam scores dropped an average of five points over five years among patients with cognitive impairment who were physically inactive. But scores for physically active patients dropped only one point on average.
Dr. Raji also noted that patients who walked five miles per week showed slower decline in memory loss over five years.
There was also good news for the healthy, dementia-free subjects. Those who walked at least six miles per week maintained normal brain volume and significantly reduced risk of cognitive decline.
Dr. Raji: “Volume is a vital sign for the brain. When it decreases, that means brain cells are dying. But when it remains higher, brain health is being maintained.”
Dr. Raji and his colleagues will continue to test the subjects in this study for another 10 years. Their goal is to find other ways that might alleviate Alzheimer’s progression and MCI symptoms.
“New Research Shows that People with Better Physical Fitness Have Less Brain Atrophy” Alzheimer’s Association, 7/27/08, alz.org
“Walking slows progression of Alzheimer’s” Radiological Society of North America, Press release, 11/29/10, eurekalert.org