Exercise May Boost Thinking Skills in Seniors at Risk for Cognitive Decline

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Unfortunately, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, but researchers continue to investigate potential medical treatments. Researchers are also investigating the role of exercise in preventing or delaying cognitive decline.

For example, a 2018 study from Duke University researchers suggests that aerobic exercise may improve thinking ability in older people with cognitive impairment who are at increased risk for progressing to dementia. The findings were reported in the journal Neurology.

The study involved 160 sedentarypeople, average age 65, who reported cognitive problems and did poorly on a cognitive screening test but did not have dementia; cardiovascular risk factors were also evaluated. The participants were randomly assigned to one of four groups:

  • aerobic exercise (brisk walking or stationary cycling for 35 minutes three times a week)
  • the anti-hypertension DASH diet
  • both aerobic exercise and the DASH diet
  • health education

After six months, cognitive testing found that the exercise-plus-diet group had marked improvements in executive function (the ability to solve problems, set and meet goals, and exert self-control), followed by the exercise-alone group. The diet-only and health-education groups did not benefit. No group had improvements in memory or verbal fluency. People who followed the DASH diet had the biggest improvements in cardiovascular risk factors such as blood cholesterol and body weight, which might have led to cognitive benefits had the study been longer, other research suggests.