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Walking Works Out Your Brain

Exercise staves off mental decline, says study

WEDNESDAY, May 9 (HealthScout) -- If you want to stay young, go for a walk.

A new study finds women who walked an average of 18 miles a week were more likely to stay sharp mentally than those who rarely got off the couch.

Researchers tested the cognitive abilities of 5,925 women ages 65 and older, and then tested them again six to eight years later. Women who said they walked the least -- about a half mile a week -- were the most likely to decline cognitively; about 24 percent of them had significant declines in test scores the second time around.

Women who walked the most -- an average of 18 miles a week -- had the least cognitive decline; about 17 percent of these women had lower test scores the second time.

The chance of cognitive decline decreased 13 percent for every extra mile walked a week, says study author Dr. Kristine Yaffe, chief of geriatrics at the Veteran's Administration Medical Center in San Francisco.

"You don't need to be running marathons," Yaffe says. "The exciting thing is there was a 'dose' relationship, which showed that even a little bit is good, but more is better."

The study was presented today at the American Academy of Neurology's 53rd Annual Meeting in Philadelphia.

The study adds to a growing body of research that shows that exercise, such as walking, is one of the best ways to preserve your mental ability as you age, says Dr. Roger Landry, a preventative medicine specialist who runs All Ways Healthy, a consulting firm in Dallas, Pa.

"Keeping active is the closest you can get to the fountain of youth," Landry says. "I think it's the way to age successfully, and if I had to recommend one activity, it would be walking. It's relatively easy to do, so people are more likely to keep at it. There's a social aspect to it if you walk with someone, and you can work it into your daily life."

Previous studies have shown exercise, particularly aerobic activity, can improve memory and ease depression for people over age 50, says James Blumenthal, a psychology professor at Duke University. "A growing body of literature shows exercise is good for your physical condition as well as mental condition."

However, the study fails to show that walking leads to better brain function, Blumenthal says. It's possible better brain function contributed to the women being more likely to walk, or as women's cognition declined, they became less likely to go out walking, he says.

"There is no way you can infer causality with this type of study," Blumenthal says.

Walking distances in the study included daily activities, such as stair-climbing. Researchers also measured the number of calories burned during exercise and found the identical results -- the more calories burned while walking, the less chance of cognitive decline.

That means other moderate exercise activities, such as playing tennis or golf, also could reduce the risk of decline, Yaffe says. The researchers adjusted for age, educational background, smoking history and estrogen supplements.

What To Do

If you haven't exercised much in awhile, and you want to start walking, discuss it with your doctor first, Landry says.

If possible, walk with a friend so you can help motivate each other. Start on a flat area and walk at a pace that doesn't leave you breathless, he says.

Gradually work your way up from, say, 20 minutes every other day, to 30 minutes to an hour nearly every day, he says. As you get more fit, increase your pace and the distance walked.

"And most of all, enjoy it!" Landry says.

For more information on walking for exercise, check the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine or these walking links at

Or check these previous HealthScout stories on walking.

SOURCES: Interviews with Kristine Yaffe, M.D., professor of neurology, University of California, San Francisco; Roger Landry, M.D., president of All Ways Healthy; James Blumenthal, Ph.D., professor of psychology, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, N.C.
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