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Walking Your Brain to Health

Published May 17, 2011 11:50 AM by Brian Garavaglia

Some recent research has revealed that walking may be associated with slower cognitive decline and even possibly forestall or prevent diseases such as Alzheimer's.  Dr. Cyrus A. Raji, Ph.D., who led this study, found that walking just 5 miles each week resulted in greater preservation of the tissue volume of the brain. Often, a reduction in the volume of brain tissue is markedly evident in many cognitive degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's disease. 

The implications of this research are quite important. First, walking is not such a physically stressful activity on the body, and therefore is often tolerated well by many individuals. Second, we are really looking at a very modest level of physical activity. The 5 miles of walking amounts to a modest level of physical activity, slightly less than one mile each day, which is less than 30 minutes of activity for most individuals. Finally, it is an activity that is not only limited to healthy older adults.  Activity therapists working in long-term care facilities should know about how this modest level of physical activity can achieve large benefits, and subsequently attempt to include this activity level into their daily activity regimes. 

The study used a volumetric MRI to examine the loss of tissue volume in the brain. It was part of a 20 year ongoing study that was entitled the Cardiovascular Health Study-Cognition Study (CHS-CS), to examine the impact that cardiovascular health has on the brain and a person's cognitive ability. The results found are very compelling and hold implications not just for those with healthy brains, but also those suffering from Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) and Alzheimer's disease. Therefore, this study has profound implications for those individuals who are not only currently brain healthy, but also for those who may currently be suffering from MCI or Alzheimer's disease and may be in an institutionalized setting. The association between walking and memory loss continued to hold even after researchers controlled for other possible confounding issues such as age, sex, race, education, body fat, head size, stroke, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and hypertension. 

The researchers feel that increased levels of walking leads to enhanced circulation, not only in the body, but in the brain as well.  The enhanced perfusion of blood flow into the brain tissue leads to the preservation of neuronal health, the key functional cells in the brain.  Therefore, maintaining healthy neurons also leads to the preservation of brain volume that was witnessed in the study among those that walked longer distances and prevents or forestalls that degradation of neurons that are typically found in MCI and Alzheimer's disease. 

Among normal subjects that did not show any evidence of MCI or Alzheimer's disease, those that walked regularly and for greater distances had a statistically significant reduction in atrophy of their brain tissue over a 10 year period, especially when they were compared to those individuals who had more sedentary lifestyles.  Furthermore, these same individuals also had a 50 percent reduction in the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease over a 13 year time period. 

However, Dr. Raji was even more enthusiastic in the finding related to those that already had MCI or Alzheimer's disease. Those individuals that walked more often and for further distances during a week had volumetric MRI's showing greater levels of brain tissue preservation within the temporal, prefrontal, and hippocampal regions of the brain.  These are the same areas that were also influenced by physical exercise in normal individuals.  However, in individuals that already had pre-existing issues of MCI and Alzheimer's disease, the tissue volume in the brain among those that walked at least 5 miles on average weekly showed much less volumetric degradation than among those who did not engage in as much walking. 

Although much more research is needed in this area, this study complements other studies that have continued to find exercise to be an important source for brain health. However, this study also demonstrated that it can also have a positive influence on those that already have variable levels of cognitive disturbances and brain pathology. This study helps to provide support for enhanced levels of walking to help a) prevent or forestall MCI and Alzheimer's disease among those that currently have healthy cognitive functions and b) to help reduce the precipitous acceleration of neuronal shrinkage and volumetric brain tissue reduction that is often found among those that have cognitive memory disturbances.    

This study also holds important implications for creating a healthy walking regime for those that are currently not affected by brain pathology. Moreover, it should also get the attention of those that currently work with the elderly, especially those that may have MCI or Alzheimer's disease. Since the study found that volumetric preservation can also be found among those that have these brain pathologies, creating treatment plans that include regular walking may actually help with many of those problem behaviors that are witnessed among these individuals as they continue to decline as well as preserve a higher functional status among these same individuals. 


Birk, S. (2011).  Walking preserves brain structure, memory.  Caring for the Ages, 12(4): 13. 



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About this Blog

    Brian Garavaglia, PhD
    Occupation: Long-term care administrator
    Setting: Sterling Heights, Mich.
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