Thinking about adding exercise to your routine as your New Year’s resolution? For some adults with mild cognitive impairment, or MCI, sticking to that resolution is just what the doctor ordered. A new recommendation from the American Academy of Neurology says that exercise could be the best prescription for MCI—and doctors should recommend it over medication.
The recommendation prescribes aerobic exercise at least twice per week to improve problems with memory and thinking.
While cognitive impairment is less serious than types of dementia, it’s often a precursor for diseases like Alzheimer’s. Experts say about 15 percent of people over 65 have mild cognitive impairment, and about 50 percent of those go on to develop Alzheimer’s within the next five years.
MCI is not a disease itself, but rather a diagnosis of symptoms—meaning in some cases, it’s potentially reversible when it’s related to another condition. Doctors like Ronald Petersen, M.D., Ph.D., lead author, director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, Mayo Clinic, and the Mayo Clinic Study of Aging, are recommending ways to slow it down.
“If you or others have noticed that you are forgetful and are having trouble with complex tasks, you should see your doctor to be evaluated and not assume that it is just part of normal aging,” said Petersen in a statement. “Sometimes memory problems are a side effect of medications, sleep disturbances, depression, or other causes that can be treated. It is important to meet with your doctor to determine the root cause. Early action may keep memory problems from getting worse.”
Petersen recommends 150 minutes of heart-pounding exercise per week to slow the rate of cognitive impairment. That can be broken up in different ways—50 minutes three times per week, or 30 minutes five times per week, for example–and should be vigorous enough to work up a sweat, but doesn’t have to be so strenuous that you can’t hold a conversation.
“Regular physical exercise has long been shown to have heart health benefits, and now we can say exercise also may help improve memory for people with mild cognitive impairment,” said Petersen. “What’s good for your heart can be good for your brain.”
Researchers looked at 11,500 studies when setting the new guideline. The studies suggested that exercise could slow the rate of cognitive decline, but there was no evidence that exercise could stop it altogether. The guidelines also say that there are no approved medical treatments or dietary recommendations for cognitive impairment. Still, Petersen stressed how physical activity can improve quality of life and keep brains functioning for longer.
“We need not look at aging as a passive process; we can do something about the course of our aging,” said Petersen. “So if I’m destined to become cognitively impaired at age 72, I can exercise and push that back to 75 or 78. That’s a big deal.”
The recommendation was published in the American Academy of Neurology’s journal, Neurology, and is endorsed by the Alzheimer’s Association.