Daily walks can improve cognitive health of adults with Down syndrome

CAMBRIDGE, United Kingdom — Walking is an exercise that’s good for everybody, but it is especially important for adults with Down syndrome. A new study has found that light, regular exercise, such as a few minutes of walking each day, can improve processing information and attention among those with Down syndrome.

Researchers from Anglia Ruskin University note that people with Down syndrome do not typically meet health recommendations for daily physical activity. The new findings on cognitive growth show that reaching these goals is a priority for this population.

The study recruited 83 adult participants from 10 different countries. These individuals were assigned to one of four groups. The exercise-only group walked three times a week for 30 minutes. A second group completed cognitive tests from the brain exercise company BrainHQ. The third group exercised physically and cognitively. The last group did not take part in any of these interventions.

Each participant had a Fitbit to record their total number of steps per day, speed, distances covered, and heart rate. Those who completed the cognitive challenges logged their activity with a separate app.

Every person also underwent a physical and cognitive test before and after eight weeks. Participants who exercised for the eight-week period covered 11.4 percent more area during a six-minute walking test. Meanwhile, those who exercised their body and mind experienced a 9.9-percent improvement.

Down syndrome adults who were in either exercise group had a stronger ability to correctly respond to a cognitive task than the other groups that did not exercise. Those who exercised and/or completed cognitive training also did better on the Stroop test — a measure of speed and accuracy of decision-making.

“For most people, walking is a subconscious activity, but it still involves lots of information processing and decision-making,” says Dan Gordon, an associate professor in cardiorespiratory exercise physiology at ARU, in a university release.

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For people with Down syndrome, researchers believe walking helps because it requires some effort to stay vigilant and pay attention to the task. One in every one thousand children is born with Down syndrome. Humans are typically born with 46 chromosomes, split into 23 pairs. Those with Down syndrome have an extra copy of one chromosome. The additional chromosome is associated with intellectual disability, delays in motor skills, and trouble with speech.

“These findings are potentially huge for the Down syndrome community, particularly as walking is a free activity in which most people can engage,” adds Gordon. “Improved cognitive function can lead to increased societal integration and quality of life, which is important given this is the first generation of those with Down syndrome who will generally outlive their parents.”

The research is published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

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About the Author

Jocelyn Solis-Moreira

Jocelyn is a New York-based science journalist whose work has appeared in Discover Magazine, Health, and Live Science, among other publications. She holds a Master’s of Science in Psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience and a Bachelor’s of Science in integrative neuroscience from Binghamton University. Jocelyn has reported on several medical and science topics ranging from coronavirus news to the latest findings in women’s health.

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