Walking may improve the brain function of adults with vascular dementia, according to a small study.

The research, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, found that older adults with mild vascular cognitive impairment, or VCI, who walked 3 hours per week for 6 months had improved reaction times and other signs of improved brain function. VCI is a form of dementia caused by damaged blood vessels in the brain.

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“It is well established that regular aerobic exercise improves cardiovascular health and cerebrovascular health,” study author Terese Liu-Ambrose told Reuters. “More specifically, it reduces one’s risk of developing chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes (type II), and high cholesterol. These chronic conditions have a negative impact on the brain - likely through compromised blood flow to the brain.”

Liu-Ambrose’s research adds to the extensive body of literature that has looked at the impact of exercise on the aging brain. Her study involved 38 men and women diagnosed with VCI. Some of the participants were randomly assigned to follow a group walking regimen, and the others continued with their previous routines. All of the subjects received educational information about their condition and tips to eat healthy. Everyone also underwent brain scans and other tests at the start and finish of the exercise program.

The participants in the walking group showed improvements on cognitive tests and the brain scans revealed improved neural activity. The authors note that the social aspect in the group walking classes may have also played a role in improving their brain function. 

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“Given the small sample size, one needs to be cautious about interpreting the results of this pilot study. However, it is encouraging to see that the six-month aerobic exercise program improved certain aspects of cognition and showed changes on functional brain imaging,” Dr. Joe Verghese, who was not involved in the study, told Reuters.

In the published paper, the authors conclude that future studies with a larger sample size are necessary to confirm and expand on their findings.

VCI is the the second most common form of dementia after Alzheimer’s disease. Many experts believe it’s underdiagnosed - like Alzheimer’s - even though it’s said to be common, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Symptoms of the disorder vary from person to person, but they are often the most evident after a major stroke. Immediately following a stroke, a person may be confused, disoriented, have trouble speaking, and experience vision loss. More familiar physical symptoms include sudden headache, difficulty walking, or numbness on one side of the face or body.

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