COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Want to put your best foot forward when it comes to brain health? Just keep walking. Researchers from the University of Maryland School of Public Health have found that regularly walking strengthens connections in and between brain networks among older adults. A group of participants walked on a treadmill four days weekly for a total of 12 days, experiencing stronger connections throughout their brain networks, as well as better recall abilities.
Study authors say one of those brain networks has a link to Alzheimer’s disease, adding to the growing evidence that exercise improves brain health, slows cognitive impairment, and may even delay the onset of this increasingly common form of dementia.
Researchers examined the brains and story recollection capacities among a group of older adults with normal brain function, and others diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment — considered a slight decline in mental abilities such as memory, reasoning, and judgment, and a risk factor for Alzheimer’s.
“Historically, the brain networks we studied in this research show deterioration over time in people with mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease,” says J. Carson Smith, a kinesiology professor with the School of Public Health and principal investigator of the study, in a university release. “They become disconnected, and as a result, people lose their ability to think clearly and remember things. We’re demonstrating that exercise training strengthens these connections.”
This project builds on Smith’s earlier work, that showed how walking may promote a decrease in cerebral blood flow and improve brain function in older adults with mild cognitive impairment. A total of 33 people participated, ranging in age from 71 to 85 years-old. The participants walked while being supervised on a treadmill for four days per week for 12 weeks. Before and after each cardio session, study authors asked the group to read a short story and repeat the narrative out loud with as many details as possible.
They also underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) so researchers could measure changes in communication – both within and between the three brain networks controlling cognitive function:
- Default mode network – Activates when a person isn’t doing a specific task (daydreaming about the grocery list) and is connected to the hippocampus – one of the first brain regions typically affected by Alzheimer’s disease. The hippocampus is also where Alzheimer’s and amyloid plaques, long suspected to be a primary driver of Alzheimer’s disease, appeared in tests.
- Frontoparietal network – Regulates decisions made when a person is completing a specific task. It also involves memory.
- Salience network – Monitors the external world and stimuli, and then decides what deserves attention. It also makes it possible to switch between networks to optimize performance.
After 12 weeks of walking, the research team repeated the tests and recorded significant improvements in participants’ story recall abilities.
“The brain activity was stronger and more synchronized, demonstrating exercise actually can induce the brain’s ability to change and adapt,” Prof. Smith concludes. “These results provide even more hope that exercise may be useful as a way to prevent or help stabilize people with mild cognitive impairment and maybe, over the long term, delay their conversion to Alzheimer’s dementia.”
It’s worth noting study authors also observed stronger activity within the default mode network, within the salience network, and in the connections between the three networks.
The study is published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease Reports.
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