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Cycling may improve thinking in sedentary seniors

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Robert Marchand

Older adults who already have some cognitive impairment, but not dementia, may find their thinking skills improve when they start doing aerobic exercise like walking or cycling a few times a week, a small experiment suggests.

Researchers studied 160 adults, age 65 on average, all sedentary and all with some cognitive impairment but not dementia. Participants were randomly assigned to one of four groups: aerobic exercise three times a week; nutritional counseling and a heart-healthy diet; both the exercise and nutrition counseling; or a control group that didn’t change their diet or exercise habits.

After six months, people who exercised scored higher on thinking tests than they did at the start of the study, an improvement equivalent to reversing nearly nine years of aging, researchers report in Neurology.

“There are currently no proven medical therapies to stop or reverse age-related cognitive decline, and these lifestyle changes have the potential to delay the onset of dementia for years,” said lead study author James Blumenthal of Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina.

In particular, exercise improved thinking skills known as executive function, which involves a person’s ability to regulate their behavior, pay attention, organize ideas and achieve goals. Exercise did not, however, seem to improve memory.

Participants assigned to exercise had three weekly sessions of 45 minutes, including a 10-minute warmup followed by 35 minutes of activities like walking, jogging, or cycling. For the first three months, they worked out at 70 percent of their maximum heart rate, working up to 85 percent for the second three months.

People in the nutritional counseling group were taught how to follow the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet, which is a low-sodium, high-fiber diet rich in fruits and vegetables, beans, nuts, low fat dairy products, whole grains and lean meats.