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Published on: February 8, 2018
by Women’s Brain Health Initiative:
It is well established by medical research that walking is good for your physical health. From heart disease and diabetes, to asthma and arthritis, a moderate amount of walking on a regular basis has been proven to prevent disease or improve symptoms. Since we know that walking is good for the body, the question arises as to whether walking has similar benefits for our cognitive health while we are younger and as we age. According to recent research, the answer is a resounding yes.
There is a growing body of scientific evidence that suggests that walking affects the brain for the better. Researchers from New Mexico Highlands University (NMHU) have found that the foot’s impact during walking sends pressure waves through the arteries that significantly modify and increase the supply of blood to the brain. Until relatively recently, the blood supply to the brain (cerebral blood flow or CBF) was considered an involuntary action that was unaffected by changes in blood pressure caused by exercise or exertion. However, “new data now strongly suggest that brain blood flow is very dynamic,” said researcher Ernest R. Greene and his colleagues at NMHU. Improved blood flow to the brain is vital to brain function and can help the brain regulate and heal itself, as well as promote better overall wellbeing.
Walking has also been found to facilitate positive affect (emotional feelings), and can override the effects of other emotionally-relevant events, such as boredom and dread. According to a recent study conducted by psychologists Jeffrey Miller and Zlatan Krizan, the mere act of putting one foot in front of the other for a few minutes has a significant beneficial impact upon our mood, regardless of where or why we do it. Miller and Krizan’s study, published in the August 2016 issue of the journal Emotion, is the first to demonstrate that walking is a powerful mood booster in and of itself. In other words, the mood-enhancing effect of walking occurs even without the many confounds typically associated with exercise research (such as social contact, fresh air, nature, the satisfaction of reaching fitness goals, and the expectation of the activity being beneficial).
Mounting research also suggests that walking can help improve quality of life for individuals with a history of depressive symptoms. Having found in previous research that exercise and walking can improve the physical and emotional health of women who are not suffering from depression, Dr. Kristiann Heesch from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) decided to investigate whether this association applies to older adults with poor mental health.
Dr. Heesch and her colleagues analyzed data collected from nearly 2000 women born between the years 1946 and 1951 who all reported having symptoms of mild to moderate depression. The researchers found that women who averaged 150 minutes of moderate exercise (golf, tennis, aerobics classes, swimming, or line-dancing) or 200 minutes of walking every week had more energy, socialized more, felt better emotionally, and were not as limited by their depression when the researchers followed up after three years. Not surprisingly, then, the women experienced greater psychological benefits the more they walked.
Walking has also been proven to promote creative ideation in real time and shortly thereafter. A study out of Stanford University, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, found that the creativity levels of participants were consistently and substantially enhanced for those walking compared to those sitting. Interestingly, walking indoors or outdoors similarly boosted creative inspiration. The act of walking itself – and not the environment – was the determinative factor.
As we age, brain function can diminish for a variety of reasons, but research published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience found that aerobic exercises such as walking “improved the aging brain’s resting functional efficiency in higher-level cognitive networks,” and the results were specific to the “two brain networks central to brain dysfunction in aging.” It is important to note that consistency is key: the researchers observed the positive effects of walking only after a twelve-month period. Similarly, a study of nearly 20,000 women between the ages of 70 and 81, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that “long-term regular physical activity, including walking, is associated with significantly better cognitive function and less cognitive decline in older women.”
Exciting new research out of the University of British Columbia’s Aging, Mobility, and Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, published in the April 2017 issue of the British Journal of Sports Medicine, suggests that walking can even help individuals who are already experiencing cognitive decline. The study observed 38 individuals who were diagnosed with vascular cognitive impairment (VCI) – the second most common form of dementia after Alzheimer’s disease. The term VCI refers to impaired brain function due to blood vessel damage in the brain. In some cases, the cognitive decline occurs after an individual suffers from several “convert” strokes (i.e. strokes that do not produce any obvious symptoms but nevertheless have an impact upon the brain and can be observed incidentally on brain scans).
When the participants were assigned to a treatment or a control group, the treatment group showed that walking at a moderate intensity for three hours per week over a six-month period improved cognitive function. In addition, both groups had functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to indicate level of brain activity, with only the treatment group showing increased activity levels. In particular, the MRI scans indicated that the treatment group “became more efficient with their brain, such that while they were performing better on cognitive tasks – their brains were working less hard. Specifically the brain scans showed that compared with the control group, walkers didn’t have to recruit as much of the brain to give the better level of performance,” said the study’s senior author Dr. Teresa Liu-Ambrose.
These findings are particularly encouraging in light of the general understanding that the brain compensates for cognitive decline by using additional brain regions to achieve or maintain cognitive performance. When compensating no longer works, “that’s when you start noticing the actual deficits in performance,” explained Dr. Liu-Ambrose. While this small-scale study does not confirm that walking can prevent VCI, this form of exercise appears to be a promising strategy for improving blood vessel health in the brain and keeping further damage from occurring.
As Dr. Liu-Ambrose observed, “Brain health doesn’t stop at the neck. The brain is highly dependant on how healthy your heart, lungs, and muscles are,” and walking can be a safe and effective way to maintain your physical and cognitive health. Importantly, research indicates that it is never too late to reap the benefits of walking, even if you have been sedentary for the majority of your life. One recent study conducted by Dr. John R. Best and his colleagues (including Dr. Liu-Ambrose), alongside lead investigators of the Health, Aging, and Body Composition (a longitudinal cohort of over 3,000 men and women in the U.S. between the ages of 70 and 79), found that walking during late life can protect against negative changes in the micro- and macro-structure of the brain, especially within cortical gray matter. The researchers discovered that these effects were independent of baseline walking levels. Thus, even initially inactive older adults may benefit from increasing or maintaining physical activity over time. Accordingly, as long as you are able, it is never too late (or too early) to put on your walking shoes and get moving.
Walking Speed May Predict Dementia Risk: A Slowing Gait Linked to Poor Cognitive Health
Research now suggests that a slowing gait (a person’s manner of walking) may be linked to a decline in mental acuity. With very few diagnostic tools available to predict the onset of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, changes in a person’s gait is increasingly becoming a key warning sign for the disease. This past summer, the journal Neurology published the results of a 14-year study conducted by scientists at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health. The researchers assessed 175 older adults (ages 70 to 79) who, at the beginning of the study, were all in good mental health when originally tested for their mental acuity.
Multiple times over the course of the study, the participants were timed as they walked an 18-foot stretch of hallway at what they deemed a “normal” walking pace. At the conclusion of the study, the participants were tested again for their mental acuity and received brain scans. As previous studies have demonstrated, slowing in the participants’ gait was associated with cognitive impairment. However, this research further determined that participants with a slowing gait and cognitive decline also experienced shrinkage of their right hippocampus, an area of the brain important to both memory and spatial orientation. “The hypothesis is that there are changes in the brain that lead both to changes in our walking and changes in our thinking,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Andrea Rosso.
Changes in gait are usually observable sooner than cognitive decline through cognitive testing, explained Dr. Rosso, and therefore testing individuals for gait changes may lead to earlier diagnoses of brain dysfunction (although some individuals with healthy brains will nevertheless experience a slowing gait due to a variety of factors, such as muscle or joint weakness). The hope is that earlier diagnosis will lead to better management of symptoms or perhaps, in time, prevent the disease altogether.
Source: MIND OVER MATTER
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