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Evidence suggests aerobic exercise could 'slow down' dementia

A twice-weekly exercise routine may help to slow down the advance of dementia, a small study has suggested.

Researchers have found that regular aerobic exercise boosts hippocampal volume in women whose intellectual capacity has been affected by age.

The hippocampus is the area of the brain involved in verbal memory and learning, and as it is sensitive to the effects of ageing and neurological damage, has become the focus of much dementia research.

Researchers for the study, published online in the British Journal of Sports Medicines, tested the effect of exercise on the hippocampal volume of 86 woman with mild cognitive impairment, which is a common risk factor for dementia.

The women − all aged between 70 and 80 and living independently at home − were then assigned to either twice-weekly hour-long sessions of aerobic training, such as brisk walking; or resistance training including lunges, squats and weights, or balance and muscle training, for half a year.

The women’s verbal memory and learning capacity was assessed before and after the six-month trial using a validated test (RAVLT).

Twenty-nine of the women had MRI tests to measure the size of their hippocampus at the end of the period.

The results showed that the total volume of the hippocampus in the group that had done aerobic training was significantly bigger than those patients who did balance and muscle toning exercises.

No difference in volume was measured between the women who did resistance training compared with the balance toning group.

But, despite a previous finding in the same group that the aerobic exercise helped better verbal memory, there was some evidence to indicate that a rise in hippocampal volume was linked to poorer verbal memory.

The authors said this suggested the relationship between brain volume and cognitive performance was complex and needs further research.

But they stressed that at the very least, aerobics appears to slow the shrinkage of the hippocampus and maintain the volume in a group of women at risk of developing dementia.

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