Medical trials reveal exercise CAN help treat cognitive problems in the elderly
- Doctors believe physical activity can reduce the risk of dementia
- Neurology medical journal says walking three times a week could help
- Hour of exercise also helped improve blood pressure and stamina
- Research carried out by experts at University of British Columbia, Canada
Exercising three times a week could reverse the early stages of dementia, experts have found.
Doctors have long urged people to exercise throughout their lives, pointing out that physical fitness can reduce the risk of dementia and other illnesses.
But the new research suggests physical activity can actually reverse the progress of the disease once it has taken hold.
The findings, published in the Neurology medical journal, bolster growing evidence that exercise can be used to treat cognitive problems, rather than simply being used to lower the risk many years in advance.
A clinical trial on elderly people, with an average age of 74, found those who exercise programme for an hour, three times a week, saw an improvement in overall thinking skills.
The participants’ blood pressure also improved and they were able to walk further.
But the results suggested that the benefit only lasted as long as people continued with an exercise plan.
The research, led by experts at the University of British Columbia in Canada, examined people with early signs of vascular dementia.
This is the second most common type of dementia, after Alzheimer’s disease, and affects around 150,000 people in the UK.
It causes memory loss and difficulties with thinking, problem-solving and language - and occurs when there are problems with the supply of blood to the brain.
The results showed that those who exercised had a small improvement on the test of overall thinking skills - improving by 1.7 points - compared to those who did not exercise.
Study author Teresa Liu-Ambrose said: ‘Studies have shown that exercise can help reduce the risk of developing memory problems, but few studies have looked at whether it can help people who already have these problems get better or keep from getting worse.
‘This result, while modest, was similar to that seen in previous studies testing the use of drugs for people with vascular cognitive impairment.
‘However, the difference was less than what is considered to be the minimal clinically important difference of three points.’
Dr Rosa Sancho, head of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: ‘We know that regular aerobic exercise can help improve cardiovascular health, but it has also been linked with a healthy brain and a reduced risk of developing dementia.
The research examined people with early signs of vascular dementia, the second most common form in the UK (file picture)
‘This new study suggests that an aerobic exercise programme may be beneficial for people who already have early memory problems.
‘While many studies have found a link between physical activity and dementia risk, few have tested specific intervention programmes and it’s positive to see new trials in this important area.
‘With limited treatment options for people with memory decline or dementia, it’s important to explore a range of possible therapeutic approaches.’
Dr Doug Brown, director of research and development at the Alzheimer’s Society, added: ‘We already know keeping active, along with a balanced diet, is one of the best ways to reduce your risk of dementia.
‘This study goes further, suggesting that frequent exercise provides modest improvements in memory and thinking for people who already have vascular dementia.’