A new study suggests that a six-month aerobic exercise regimen and heart-healthy diet improves one’s ability to think, remember and make decisions, and may ward off mild cognitive impairment, or cognitive impairment without dementia (CIND).
CIND is a condition that affects a person’s memory and is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Signs include frequently losing things, forgetting to go to events and appointments, and having more trouble coming up with words than other people of your age, according to the U.S. National Library for Medicine.
Some experts believe that risk factors for heart disease are also risk factors for dementia and late-life cognitive decline and dementia. In the new study, researchers examined two potential ways to slow the development of CIND based on what they know about preventing heart disease.
The findings are published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
The research team had a theory: That the healthy lifestyle behaviors that slow the development of heart disease could reduce heart disease risk and also slow cognitive decline in older adults with CIND.
These behaviors include regular exercise and a heart-healthy diet, such as the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet.
To investigate their theory, the researchers designed a study titled “Exercise and NutritionaL Interventions for coGnitive and Cardiovascular HealTh EnhaNcement” (or ENLIGHTEN for short).
The aim was to examine the effects of aerobic exercise (sometimes known as “cardio” or “cardiovascular” exercise because it involves activities that increase the circulation of oxygen through the blood) and the DASH diet on cognitive functioning in older adults with CIND.
The ENLIGHTEN study involved 160 adults, ages 55 and older. The participants didn’t exercise and had memory problems, difficulty thinking, and making decisions. They also had at least one additional risk factor for heart disease, such as high blood pressure (also known as hypertension), high cholesterol, diabetes, or other chronic conditions.
Participants took a number of tests to measure their heart disease risk factors and cognitive ability. Researchers also assessed their dietary habits and ability to perform daily activities. The participants were then randomly assigned to one of four groups: a group doing aerobic exercise alone (35 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise, including walking or stationary biking, three times per week for six months), a group following the DASH diet alone, a group doing the same aerobic exercise routine and following the DASH diet combined, or a group receiving standard health education.
At the end of the six-month intervention and assessment, participants were free to engage in whatever activity and dietary habits they desired, with no restrictions.
The findings show that exercise improved the participants’ ability to think, remember, and make decisions compared to non-exercisers, and that combining exercise with the DASH diet improved the ability to think, remember, and make decisions, compared to people who didn’t exercise or follow the diet–even though they didn’t perfectly follow the programs they were assigned to during the six-month interventions.
The researchers say the findings are promising proof that improved ability to think, remember, and make decisions can last one year after completing a six-month exercise intervention. They suggested that further studies would be needed to learn more.