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Published on: October 17, 2014
by Wayne Curtis for The Atlantic:
Other long-term studies also show that even modest exercise can serve as a bulwark against dementia. A study started in 1989 with 299 elderly volunteers in the Pittsburgh area tracked mental acuity and exercise habits. The subjects’ brains were assessed by MRI two to three years later, and then again in 2008, when the first of two measurements of their cognitive function was also performed; the second of these took place four years after that.
The results, published in the journal Neurology, were sweeping and conclusive: Those who walked the most cut in half their risk of developing memory problems. The optimal exercise for cognitive health benefits, the researchers concluded, was to walk six to nine miles each week. That’s a mile to a mile and a half a day, without walking on Sundays if you’re inclined to follow Weston’s example of resting on the Sabbath. (This study concluded that walking an additional mile didn’t help all that much.)
A study written up in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 2001 tracked nearly six thousand women ages 65 and older for six to eight years. The women were given a cognitive test at the study’s beginning and end, the results of which were then correlated with how many blocks they walked daily.
Those who walked the least had a drop of 24 percent in cognition. Those who walked the most still showed a decline, but of a lesser degree: 17 percent. The results were clear: “Women with higher levels of baseline physical activity were less likely to develop cognitive decline.” Given the aging of much of the U.S. population, we’ll no doubt be seeing more research along these lines.
Peter Snyder of Brown University’s Alpert Medical School, who studies the effects of aging on the brain, recently told National Public Radio that “what we’re finding is that of all of these noninvasive ways of intervening, it is exercise that seems to have the most efficacy at this point—more so than nutritional supplements, vitamins and cognitive interventions … The literature on exercise is just tremendous,” he said.
Indeed, a 20-year-long study in 2010 found that walking just five miles per week “protects the brain structure” over a 10-year period in people with Alzheimer’s disease and in those who exhibit signs of mild cognitive impairment. “The findings showed across the board that greater amounts of physical activity were associated with greater brain volume,” the researchers concluded. Another study, from 2012, supported those findings, also concluding that even moderate walking helped stave off further deterioration among elderly people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. That study tracked 104 Alzheimer’s patients, who were classified as either active or sedentary. Among the active group, those who walked for more than two hours a week showed significant improvement in scores on tests of their mental abilities, whereas the more sedentary patients showed marked declines.
While different studies arrive at moderately different conclusions via various routes, the recent research of dozens of scientists more often than not converges at a single intersection. And that consistently suggests that if you exercise, your brain will be fitter than if you don’t. This applies to the young, those in the prime of their days, and especially to the elderly.
The 20-year 2010 study mentioned above, results from which were released by Cyrus Raji of the University of Pittsburgh, followed 426 older adults, including healthy people along with those showing mild cognitive impairment or the actual onset of Alzheimer’s. Across test subjects, more walking was shown to result in greater brain volume. “Unfortunately, walking is not a cure,” Raji said. “But walking can improve your brain’s resistance to [Alzheimer’s] disease and reduce memory loss over time.”
Weston certainly didn’t know the details, but he understood the contours of the benefits of walking. And others noticed. “Edward Payson Weston is a living example of what open air, temperance, exercise, and healthy-mindedness will do for the human race,” one newspaper trumpeted just days after the walking septuagenarian departed New York for San Francisco. “His example is worth a hundred sermons. He is embodied disproof of the Osler theory.”
Indeed, Weston went on not only to walk from New York to San Francisco, but the following year from Los Angeles to New York. With more cooperative weather on a southern route and tail winds pushing him on, he made it in 77 days. At age 74 he walked from New York to Minneapolis, and then at 83 from Buffalo to New York.
But eventually, the car won. At 88 he stepped off a curb in Manhattan and was struck by a cab. It didn’t kill him, but he wouldn’t walk again. Bedridden, he lived to 90 and died shortly thereafter.
In his nine decades, he’d not only rebuffed Osler, but was emerged as a prescient advocate for the benefits of walking—as a way to quietly collaborate with body, brain and even society at large to build something better.
“Anyone can walk,” Weston said in 1910. “It’s free, like the sun by day and the stars by night. All we have to do is get on our legs, and the roads will take us everywhere.”
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