Can walking improve memory in older adults?

Jun 01, 2023
Findings show how a simple stroll can have a powerful impact on brain health. Source: Getty

While high-intensity and intricate workouts normally dominate the fitness world, there’s one activity that’s been stealing the spotlight for its easy and incredible benefits for our brain health: walking.

Beyond being convenient and accessible, new research findings show that walking is a remarkable tool for boosting brain health, particularly for older adults.

The study, conducted by a team of scientists from the Boston University School of Medicine, found that older adults who go on a simple stroll can significantly improve their brain connectivity and memory.

Led by principal investigator and kinesiology professor J. Carson Smith, the researchers looked into the brain and memory skills of 33 participants, aged 71 to 85, who either had normal brain function or were diagnosed with mild cognitive impairments.

“Historically, the brain networks we studied in this research show deterioration over time in people with mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease,” Smith said.

“They become disconnected, and as a result, people lose their ability to think clearly and remember things. We’re demonstrating that exercise training strengthens these connections.”

The new study is based on Smith’s previous research, which found that walking could potentially reduce cerebral blood flow and enhance brain function in older adults who have been diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment.

To test his theory, Smith’s team initially asked participants to read a short story before asking them to repeat it out loud recalling as much detail as possible. The participants were then asked to go on a regular, supervised, walk on a treadmill over 12 weeks.

After 12 weeks of walking, researchers repeated the reading test and saw significant improvement in the participant’s ability to recall stories.

“The brain activity was stronger and more synchronised, demonstrating exercise actually can induce the brain’s ability to change and adapt,” Smith said.

“These results provide even more hope that exercise may be useful as a way to prevent or help stabilise people with mild cognitive impairment and maybe, over the long term, delay their conversion to Alzheimer’s dementia.”

This isn’t the first time researchers have examined the relationship between walking and cognitive health.

In 2020, a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found just one hour of brisk walking per week can stave off disability in older adults with arthritis pain.

So the next time you’re going out for a stroll consider hitting the pavement with more purpose and walk your way towards a healthier brain and body.

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