Published on: December 30, 2017
by Women’s Brain Health Initiative:
It’s well established by medical research that walking is good for your physical health. From heart disease to diabetes, and from asthma to arthritis, walking, when done in a moderate way, has been proven to prevent disease or improve symptoms.
The question becomes: Since walking is so good for the body, can it also maintain our brain health, while we’re younger and as we age? The answer is a resounding yes. Research is piling up about how walking effects the brain for the better. In one recent small study with young adult subjects out of New Mexico Highlands University, it was found that walking – the foot actually hitting the ground – “produces pressure waves in the body that significantly increase blood flow to the brain.”
Sounds somewhat obvious that exercise would improve the brain’s blood flow, something that is extremely important for overall health, but until relatively recently, the common understanding about blood flow into the brain was that it remained steady, even when we exercised.
How else is walking able to promote or sustain brain health? Walking has been found by researchers in recent years to improve mood in college-aged students as compared to sitting. Interestingly, this research, published in the journal Emotion, looked at the walking that is a part of everyday life, not walking that is “exercise”.
Walking has also been proven to support creativity – a study out of Stanford University and published in Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition found that our ability to think creatively is improved during a walk and for a short time afterward versus our ability to be creative when sitting. Mounting research says that walking is also good for mental health issues – in just one study, women aged 50–55 experienced less depressive symptoms the more they walked.
As we age, brain function can diminish for a variety of reasons, but research published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience found that an aerobic exercise like 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.”
Importantly, it seems like consistency is key – the positive effects were seen only after twelve months of walking. And, in a study of almost 20,000 U.S. women aged 70 to 81 published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, it was found that “long-term regular physical activity, including walking, is associated with significantly better cognitive function and less cognitive decline in older women.” The case for walking for keeping the brain healthy keeps growing.
Can walking go the extra mile and actually help people who are already experiencing cognitive decline? Some exciting new research out of the University of British Columbia’s Aging, Mobility, and Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory says it actually may. Research has already proven that a moderately intense aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking, is beneficial for the brain, says Teresa Liu-Ambrose, Professor and Canada Research Chair in Physical Activity, Mobility, and Cognitive Neuroscience and the Director of the aforementioned lab at the University of British Columbia.
So Professor Liu-Ambrose and her team wanted to see if brisk walking had benefits for people who already had cognitive issues. Therefore participants in their study were already experiencing cognitive deficits and “are at risk of developing dementia,” she says. Half of the participants walked in a group-based format that was progressed over time to forty minutes of walking, three times per week, for six months. “Initially it was a fairly easy walk and it got progressed to a point where they could still carry on a conversation, but it would be a bit of a challenge,” says Liu-Ambrose. The other half of the group received dietary information and cooking sessions with a dietician, so that everyone stayed engaged.
Results were published in Neurology in October 2016 and British Journal of Sports Medicine in April 2017. They found the walking group experienced improved memory and reduced blood pressure, which is important because chronic high blood pressure is not good for the brain as it can cause damage to the brain through conditions such as stroke. What was more interesting was that brain scans at the start and end of the study showed that “the walking 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,” says Liu-Ambrose, and this is exciting because common thinking around cognitive decline is that the brain compensates by using more areas of the brain to achieve or maintain cognitive performance. When compensating doesn’t work anymore, “that’s when you start noticing the actual deficits in performance,” says Liu-Ambrose.
This study used participants who had vascular cognitive impairment, which is under a lot of scrutiny these days because it is the second most common type of dementia after Alzheimer’s. Vascular cognitive impairment is thought to be due to damage to the white matter of the brain. White matter connects different parts of the brain to each other and maintaining its structure is important for good cognitive abilities.
Damage to the white matter can occur via tiny strokes that may not create symptoms but impact on the brain; people who have these kinds of “lesions” on a brain scan are at “greater risk for developing vascular dementia, but perhaps also the Alzheimer’s pathology as well,” says Liu-Ambrose. People who are more likely to get these lesions have high blood pressure or type 2 diabetes, and it’s well established that brisk walking, or other aerobic activities, can reduce these known key risk factors for getting small lesions in the brain.
Liu-Ambrose’s group also worked with lead investigators of the Health, Aging, and Body Composition, a study of over 3,000 men and women in the US aged 70–79, to better understand the role of walking in maintaining older adults’ cognitive health. While previous research had proven that those who were more active at the beginning of that study had less chance of developing dementia, little research had looked at whether changing the level of walking over time could still impact cognitive health.
In other words, if the participants weren’t active at the beginning of the 10-year period, but became more active later on, could that still help cognition? Dr. John R. Best, a research associate working with Liu-Ambrose, addressed that question and found the answer was yes. You can still reap benefits on the “backend, which is a positive message for lots of older adults,” says Liu-Ambrose.
Your physical health has an effect on your brain’s health and many people still don’t realize just how connected the body and the brain are. “Brain health doesn’t stop at the neck. The brain is highly dependant on how healthy your heart, lungs, and muscles are,” says Liu-Ambrose. Walking is a safe and effective form of exercise that keeps your heart, lungs, and muscles healthy, and ultimately your brain. So, as long as you’re able, put on your walking shoes and get moving.
What Does A Slowing Gait Mean For Your Cognitive Health?
Various researchers have published work that suggests that a slowing gait is linked to a decline in mental acuity. With very few simple, diagnostic tools to predict the onset of dementia or Alzheimer’s, changes in a person’s gait – the manner in which they walk – is fast becoming a key warning sign for the disease.
Just this summer the journal Neurology published the results of a study that brings that connection one step further. Individuals at the beginning of their 70s were examined over the course of 14 years. Brain images of the participants at the 10-year mark showed that the right hippocampus was smaller in volume than normal and this was related to both gait slowing and cognitive impairment. “The hypothesis is that there are changes in the brain that lead both to changes in our walking and changes in our thinking,” says Andrea Rosso, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s Public Health’s Department of Epidemiology and the lead author.
Changes in gait are usually observable sooner than cognitive decline via cognitive testing, says Rosso, and therefore testing for gait change might lead to earlier diagnoses of brain dysfunction (though some people with slowing gait have brains that are just fine, they may have muscle or joint issues). The hope is that earlier diagnosis will lead to better management of symptoms or perhaps, in time, pausing the disease altogether. It may be a chicken and egg problem as we age – can a walking regime protect against the eventuality of a slowing gait? Researchers don’t know that yet, but there’s no reason to wait for them to find out. Keep walking if you can!
Source: MIND OVER MATTER – V5
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