Regular walking found to boost memory in those with ‘mild cognitive impairment’

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‘Mild cognitive impairment’ describes a reduction in brain function that is not advanced enough to be described as ‘dementia’. It’s usually described via psychological testing. As yet, there is no recognised medical treatment for it. That doesn’t mean, of course, that nothing can be done about it, and in fact some recent evidence suggests that one approach that might help is exercise.

This study, conducted at the University of Maryland School of Public Health in the US, tested the effect of regular treadmill walking on individuals with and without mild cognitive impairment [1]. The intensity of exercise was described as ‘moderate’ (say, enough to work up a sweat but not so much that someone is unable to talk) and the study lasted 12 weeks. The average age of the study participants was 78.

The subjects were tested psychologically and also with ‘functional magnetic resonance imaging’ (fMRI) – which visualises activity in the brain.

The walking programme improved brain function in those with mild cognitive impairment, specifically on a memory task (remembering a list of words). The study also shows that during the task, there was reduced activity in several areas of the brain, including regions that are often affected in Alzheimer’s disease. Reduced activity is generally seen as a good thing, as it essentially signifies that, in this case, less ‘effort’ was required to complete the mental task.

As an added bonus, the study subjects also saw a 10 per cent rise in their fitness, on average.

There are a number of known ways in which regular activity may improve and help preserve brain function. These include:

  • Structural changes in the brain, including enlargement of the hippocampus (a part of the brain concerned with memory) and a reduction in the loss of grey matter.
  • The stimulation of what are known as ‘brain derived neurotropic factors’ which, among other things, facilitate brain cell communication.
  • Enhanced blood supply to the brain.

In a way, the beauty of this intervention is that it is realistic for most people, even those relatively advanced in years. For those who are not infirm, I’d suggest that even more benefits may be had from activity taken outdoors, seeing as sunlight appears to have the ability to improve mood and mental functioning, and this is particularly important in the winter.


1. Carson Smith J, et al. Semantic Memory Functional MRI and Cognitive Function after Exercise Intervention in Mild Cognitive Impairment. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. Published online 26 June 2013 [hr]

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