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RSNA Press Release

At A Glance:
  • Walking five miles per week protects brain volume and slows cognitive decline in people with Alzheimer's disease and mild cognitive impairment.
  • Brain volume is vital to brain health.
  • Between 2.4 million and 5.1 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease.

Walking Slows Progression of Alzheimer's

Released: November 29, 2010


Media Contacts: RSNA Newsroom 1-312-949-3233
Before 11/27/2010 or after 12/02/2010: RSNA Media Relations: 1-630- 590-7762

Linda Brooks
1-630-590-7738
lbrooks@rsna.org
Maureen Morley
1-630-590-7754
mmorley@rsna.org

CHICAGO — Walking may slow cognitive decline in adults with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and Alzheimer's disease, as well as in healthy adults, according to a study presented today at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).

"We found that walking five miles per week protects the brain structure over 10 years in people with Alzheimer's and MCI, especially in areas of the brain's key memory and learning centers," said Cyrus Raji, Ph.D., from the Department of Radiology at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania. "We also found that these people had a slower decline in memory loss over five years."

Alzheimer's disease is an irreversible, progressive brain disease that slowly destroys memory and cognitive skills. According to the National Institute on Aging, between 2.4 million and 5.1 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease. Based on current population trends, that number is expected to increase significantly over the next decade.

In cases of MCI, a person has cognitive or memory problems exceeding typical age-related memory loss, but not yet as severe as those found in Alzheimer's disease. About half of the people with MCI progress to Alzheimer's disease.

"Because a cure for Alzheimer's is not yet a reality, we hope to find ways of alleviating disease progression or symptoms in people who are already cognitively impaired," Dr. Raji said.

For the ongoing 20-year study, Dr. Raji and colleagues analyzed the relationship between physical activity and brain structure in 426 people, including 299 healthy adults (mean age 78), and 127 cognitively impaired adults (mean age 81), including 83 adults with MCI and 44 adults with Alzheimer's dementia.

Patients were recruited from the Cardiovascular Health Study. The researchers monitored how far each of the patients walked in a week. After 10 years, all patients underwent 3-D MRI exams to identify changes in brain volume.

"Volume is a vital sign for the brain," Dr. Raji said. "When it decreases, that means brain cells are dying. But when it remains higher, brain health is being maintained."

In addition, patients were given the mini-mental state exam (MMSE) to track cognitive decline over five years. Physical activity levels were correlated with MRI and MMSE results. The analysis adjusted for age, gender, body fat composition, head size, education and other factors.

The findings showed across the board that greater amounts of physical activity were associated with greater brain volume. Cognitively impaired people needed to walk at least 58 city blocks, or approximately five miles, per week to maintain brain volume and slow cognitive decline. The healthy adults needed to walk at least 72 city blocks, or six miles, per week to maintain brain volume and significantly reduce their risk for cognitive decline.

Over five years, MMSE scores decreased by an average of five points in cognitively impaired patients who did not engage in a sufficient level of physical activity, compared with a decrease of only one point in patients who met the physical activity requirement.

"Alzheimer's is a devastating illness, and unfortunately, walking is not a cure," Dr. Raji said. "But walking can improve your brain's resistance to the disease and reduce memory loss over time."

Coauthors are Kirk Erickson, Ph.D., Oscar Lopez, M.D., James Becker, Ph.D., Caterina Rosano, M.D., Anne Newman, M.D., M.P.H., H. Michael Gach, Ph.D., Paul Thompson, Ph.D., April Ho, B.S., and Lewis Kuller, M.D.

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Note: Copies of RSNA 2010 news releases and electronic images will be available online at RSNA.org/press10 beginning Monday, Nov. 29.

RSNA is an association of more than 44,000 radiologists, radiation oncologists, medical physicists and related scientists committed to excellence in patient care through education and research. The Society is based in Oak Brook, Ill. (RSNA.org)

Editor's note: The data in these releases may differ from those in the printed abstract and those actually presented at the meeting, as researchers continue to update their data right up until the meeting. To ensure you are using the most up-to-date information, please call the RSNA Newsroom at 1-312-949-3233.

For patient-friendly information on MRI, visit RadiologyInfo.org.

Abstract:

Press conference video

Presenter Interview:

Images (.JPG format)

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Figure 1: This figure compares the beneficial effects of physical activity on the brains of healthy aging individuals (n = 299) to the positive relationships between exercise and brain structure in cognitively impaired persons with either mild cognitive impairment or Alhzeimer's (n = 127). In both normal aging and cognitive impairment, physical activity preserves volume in brain areas that are important for memory, learning, and attention. These structures include the prefrontal cortex and temporal cortex. The top row of images shows these relationships in a 3-D rendering of the brain while the bottom row shows the prefrontal cortex findings in side view cutaway images of the brain.

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Figure 2: Side view cutaway images showing the sparing of brain volume in 299 healthy aging persons (left) and 127 persons with cognitive impairment and Alzheimer's (right). In both groups, there is more frontal lobe volume with walking about one mile per day and this translates to a reduced risk for cognitive impairment in the healthy aging group and slower decline in the cognitively impaired group.

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Figure 3
Figure 3: This figure compares the beneficial effects of physical activity on the brains of healthy aging individuals (n = 299) to the positive relationships between exercise and brain structure in cognitively impaired persons with either mild cognitive impairment or Alhzeimer's (n = 127). In both normal aging and cognitive impairment, physical activity preserves volume in brain areas that are important for memory, learning, and attention. These images are 3-D renderings of the brain.

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Figure 4
Figure 4: This figure compares the beneficial effects of physical activity on the brains of healthy aging individuals to the positive relationships between exercise and brain structure in cognitively impaired persons with either mild cognitive impairment or Alhzeimer's. In both normal aging and cognitive impairment, physical activity preserves volume in brain areas that are important for memory, learning, and attention. These images are 3-D renderings of the brain.

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