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Can exercise stop mental decline?

Exercise can dramatically alter the rate of mental decline in elderly people with early signs of dementia, the Daily Express reported today.

The news reports are based on a small study that compared how different types of exercise may affect the mental ability of elderly women with “probable” mild cognitive impairment (MCI). MCI is a risk factor for developing dementia, although it does not always lead to the condition. During a six-month trial, elderly women were asked to regularly perform either aerobic exercise, muscle-strengthening “resistance training” such as weightlifting, or classes involving gentle stretches and movement. Researchers found that women who performed resistance exercises showed improvements in several aspects of their cognitive functioning.

Elderly people are rightly advised to keep active, as it helps maintain physical health. However, whether exercise can prevent cognitive decline is less clear from these results. This small study did not show that resistance training cuts the risk of dementia, nor did it set out to do so. To investigate this, it would have needed to have followed participants over a longer period and assessed whether they met criteria for diagnosing dementia rather than MCI. Also, the women’s mental abilities were tested only twice, at the start of the study and after six months of exercise. Many factors may have affected how well they performed, including how they felt on the day of the tests.

This was a “proof-of-concept study”, which means it was designed to provide only preliminary evidence that exercise may have an effect on cognitive ability. The results are interesting, but further research is required.