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Exercise Benefits Cognitive Health

Various forms of physical activity, including resistance training (e.g. weights) and walking, can increase cognitive functioning in elderly adults, including those diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment (MCI, the precursor to Alzheimer's disease), according to four new studies presented at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference (AAIC) 2012.

Results showed that resistance training (free weights) had significantly higher scores on the Stroop test (measures selective attention and conflict resolution) compared with the control group. For the Rey's Auditory Verbal Learning Test (RAVLT), aerobic exercise (which consisted of outdoor walking) showed significant improvement over the control group.

Another study presented at the conference showed that healthy people in the walking group had a 2% increase in their hippocampus (part of the brain) compared with a 1.5% decrease in the stretching and toning group.

Commenting on these results, one doctor was impressed as results were greater with simple physical activity than any other treatment, including pharmaceutical treatments. In other words, just getting out and walking is enough to provide benefits that expensive pharmaceutical treatments can't (if they even existed).

"In addition, higher cardiorespiratory fitness was associated with greater volume of the prefrontal cortex, which mediated the link between fitness and cognitive performance," write the study authors.

The overall message is that even moderate exercise has widespread effects on the brain and there is no excuse not to. Even elderly people who've been sedentary all their lives can benefit by starting now. Exercise appears to be an effective intervention for delaying the onset of dementia in seniors who are already showing signs of decline. It can also help those without cognitive decline keep the brains healthy. While the most effective strategy is likely a combination of aerobic and resistance-type physical activity, really any type of exercise is important for seniors' cognitive health.

Source: Alzheimer's Association International Conference (AAIC) 2012. Abstracts F1-03-01, FI-03-02, P1-109, and P1-121. All presented July 15, 2012.

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