Exercise may benefit seniors with dementia

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Teresa Liu-Ambrose, PT, Ph.D.
Teresa Liu-Ambrose, PT, Ph.D.

Older adults who already have memory and thinking difficulties may see a small benefit from exercising, according to new research published Wednesday online by the journal Neurology.

“Studies have shown that exercise can help reduce the risk of developing memory problems, but few studies have looked at whether it can help people who already have these problems get better or keep from getting worse,” said author Teresa Liu-Ambrose, PT, Ph.D., of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

The research involved 70 people (average age: 74) who had mild vascular cognitive impairment, the second most common cause of dementia after Alzheimer's disease. It is caused by damage to large and small blood vessels in the brain.

Half of the participants participated in a one-hour exercise class three times a week for six months. The other half received information each month about vascular cognitive impairment and a healthy diet, but no information about physical activity.

skills, executive function skills such as planning and organizing, and how well they could complete their daily activities.

Those who exercised experienced a small improvement (1.7 points) in overall thinking skills compared with those who did not exercise.

“This result, while modest, was similar to that seen in previous studies testing the use of drugs for people with vascular cognitive impairment,” Liu-Ambrose said. “However, the difference was less than what is considered to be the minimal clinically important difference of three points.”

Those who exercised also saw improved blood pressure and cardiovascular capacity, measured by seeing how far study participants could walk in six minutes. High blood pressure is a risk factor for developing vascular cognitive impairment, so those findings also are important, Liu-Ambrose said.

Six months after the participants stopped the exercise program, their scores were no different than the scores of those who did not exercise. Also, no difference existed between the two groups at any point on the tests of executive function skills or daily activities.

Liu-Ambrose said that more studies are needed to determine whether exercise can improve the thinking abilities of people with mild vascular cognitive impairment. Because the study sample size was based on detecting a difference on the overall thinking skills test, large samples might be needed to detect differences in specific thinking abilities, such as planning, and everyday skills, such as managing one's finances, she added.

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