A new study from the University of British Columbia shows an hour of walking three times a week can help reduce the cognitive impairment that causes dementia in some seniors.

Researcher Teresa Liu-Ambrose conducted the study with seniors who suffer from vascular cognitive disorder.

This disorder is not the same as Alzheimer's disease — which is a breakdown of the brain's neurons — but rather a disease within brain's blood vessels, Liu-Ambrose explained.

It's also the second most common cause of dementia worldwide, she added.

In the study, seniors with an average age of 74 with the disorder were randomly divided into two groups. One group took an exercise program — walking three times a week for an hour — and the other group did an education program about the disease and a healthy diet for six months.

The study found seniors in the walking group were able to improve their cognitive abilities, Liu-Ambrose said.

"We detected they were better when they first started, as well as they were better than those that did the education," she said.

However, when the seniors' cognitive functions were measured six months after the study — after they had stopped exercising — researchers found no differences between the two groups, suggesting regular exercise is an important factor for improvement.

Exercise: what the doctor ordered

Another intriguing aspect, Liu-Ambrose said, was the amount the seniors improved in cognitive abilities initially was equivalent to what previous drug trials were able to do.

"Right now there is no effective drug therapy for those individuals with cognitive issues. Based on our research as well as research of others, I do think recommending and supporting the uptake of exercise is a sensible approach," she said.

Liu-Ambrose, whose research specializes in aging and mobility, said there is a movement in medicine to promote physical activity as medicine.

We may think of diseases like dementia as affecting older adults, she said, but many of the underlying changes can begin occurring in your early 40s.

"You have a lot of power to alter how you might age cognitively and physically ... It's not too late to start in older age, [even if] you've been sedentary for most of your life and you already have some cognitive issues, exercise seems to have some benefit."

The results of the study "Aerobic exercise and vascular cognitive impairment" were published in Neurology magazine.

With files from The Early Edition


To hear the interview, click on the link labelled Walking can reduce cognitive impairment in seniors, new study