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Mild cognitive impairment and memory loss often precede the development of Alzheimer’s disease, a neurodegenerative disorder characterized by progressive memory loss, spatial disorientation, cognitive dysfunction, and behavioral changes. Aerobic exercise has been shown to improve memory function in older adults. Findings from a new study suggest that exercise improves cerebral flood flow in regions of the brain involved in memory.

The prospective clinical trial involved 30 older men and women (average age, 66 years) with mild cognitive impairment. Half of the participants engaged in a supervised aerobic exercise 25 to 30 minutes per session for three times per week, gradually increasing to 30 to 40 minutes per session for three or four times per week. The other half of the participants engaged in stretching only. At the end of the 12-month study period, the authors of the study assessed the participants' memory function, cardiorespiratory fitness, and cerebral blood flow.

The participants who took part in the exercise program exhibited marked improvements in memory function and cardiorespiratory fitness. They also demonstrated increased blood flow to the anterior cingulate cortex region of their brains, an area associated with empathy, impulse control, emotion, and decision-making.

Interestingly, the exercising group showed reduced blood flow to the posterior cingulate cortex, an area of the brain associated with internally directed thought and the default mode network. The posterior cingulate cortex is highly sensitive to age-related cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and dementia. The authors of the study suggested that once this area of the brain is affected by cognitive impairment, exercise can’t forestall further impairments. Instead, the exercise-induced changes in blood flow indicate a compensatory mechanism to shift brain activity to other regions.

These findings suggest that exercise can forestall the effects of age-related cognitive decline. Many older adults are unable to participate in exercise due to physical limitations, however. Sauna use is an exercise mimetic that induces the activity of heat shock proteins, a class of proteins that provide protection against neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. Learn more about the exercise-like effects of sauna use in our overview article.

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