WEDNESDAY, Oct. 19, 2016 (HealthDay News) -- Older people who have memory and thinking problems may get a slight benefit from exercise, a new study suggests.
People who exercised showed some improvement on a test of thinking and memory skills compared with those who didn't exercise, the Canadian researchers found.
"We found that three times a week of moderate intense aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking, significantly improved cognitive function in older adults with impaired cognitive function due to disease affecting the small blood vessels in the brain," said lead researcher Teresa Liu-Ambrose. She's an associate professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
The people in the study had mental decline caused by narrowing of blood vessels in the brain, which is the second most common cause of dementia after Alzheimer's disease, Liu-Ambrose said.
Although the improvement in mental function was modest, it was similar to that seen in studies that tested drugs for people with the same problem, Liu-Ambrose said. "However, the difference was less than what is considered to be the minimal clinically important difference," she said.
"While future studies are needed to replicate and confirm our results, given the well-established benefits of exercise as well as the fact there are few treatment options available for people with this condition, aerobic exercise appears to be a sensible treatment option with minimal side effects and cost," she added.
For the study, Liu-Ambrose and her colleagues worked with 70 people, average age 74, who had "slight" thinking and memory problems.
Half the participants took part in one-hour exercise classes three times a week for six months. The other half received information about mental decline and a healthy diet, but no information about physical activity.
The participants were tested at the start and finish of the study, and again six months later. Tests evaluated overall thinking skills; executive function skills, such as planning and organizing; and how well they could cope with their daily activities. On one 11-point test, the study participants who exercised improved almost 2 points, the study found.
But, six months after the exercise ended, their scores were no different than those who did not exercise. And there was no difference between the groups on tests of executive function or daily activities, the researchers added.
Exercise had other benefits, the researchers found. People who exercised had lower blood pressure and did better on a test of how far they could walk in six minutes, which measures overall heart health. Lowering blood pressure may also help ward off mental decline, because high blood pressure is a risk factor for mental impairment, the researchers said.
Dr. Alexandra Foubert-Samier is with the Institute of Neurodegenerative Diseases at Bordeaux University in France. She said: "This study found some interesting results concerning the practice of physical activities against cognitive decline, but it must be confirmed by future studies. One must be careful about the scope of the results of this study, although it is encouraging.
It's possible that physical activities protect against mental decline, but other studies are needed to prove it, said Foubert-Samier, who co-wrote an editorial that accompanied the study.
"Nevertheless, physical activity is good for health, especially for protecting against cardiovascular risk factors," she said.
For more information on exercise, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.