Problems with brain function and memory that interfere with one’s daily function (also called cognitive impairment) are one of the most pressing health care issues. So far, no effective medication has been found to prevent the progress of cognitive impairment and onset of dementia (1). That’s why there’s so much interest in lifestyle approaches for prevention or treatment. Many people want to know, “What can I do to keep my brain healthy and functioning well?”
Regular physical exercise is a great way to promote good health throughout life. Recent long-term studies of aging show that people who are more active have less risk of chronic disease, disability or depression, and are more likely to keep up their activities of daily living (ADL) (2;3). Not to mention the benefits of exercise for preventing falls (4;5), fitness and quality of life for older adults (6;7). Exercise helps us feel better, and enjoy a healthier, more active lifestyle for a longer period of time. Exercise also has few side effects and can be inexpensive and enjoyable!
But does it help prevent – or at least slow – cognitive impairment and improve life for people with dementia?
What the research tells us
A systematic review which included 17 randomized controlled trials measured the impacts of various types of exercise on 1,067 older adults already diagnosed with dementia (8). The review found promising evidence that exercise may help people with dementia improve their activities of daily living – for example bathing, dressing, eating – which can help people facing cognitive decline to maintain their independence (8;9;10). This is a particularly interesting and important finding since people with cognitive impairment often find it more difficult to perform activities of daily living.
It is also possible that certain types of exercise – and how often or intensely we do them – may benefit brain health and function more than others. Tai Chi, for example, may be a promising way to help protect, and even enhance, cognitive function among healthy adults as reported in another recent systematic review. The authors of this review go on to say it may also be possible that some people may benefit more from exercise, depending on their age, level of fitness, cognitive health, and severity or type of dementia diagnosis (11). More high quality studies are needed to learn more about the long-term benefits of exercise for brain health and cognitive function, but the most recent evidence is promising (9)!
No matter what the research says about the impact on cognition, there are already enough compelling reasons to exercise that the decision to embrace physical activity is a “no-brainer!”