I recently was able to attend the 18th Annual MCI Symposium in Miami, FL held Jan 18th and 19th. There was a wealth of information there for providers, researchers, and the public about Mild Cognitive Impairment and dementia. I was particularly struck by the strong evidence of the role that lifestyle factors, particularly vascular risk factors and amount of physical activity had on one's risk of progressing to dementia.
Many studies have begun to include brain scans to look at whether an individual has amyloid (a protein in the brain that is linked to Alzheimer's plaques) build up in their brain or not. While finding amyloid on one of these scans does not mean the individual WILL go on to develop Alzheimer's disease, it does identify individuals who may be at increased risk of going on to develop the disease. In looking at individuals who were cognitively normal but had elevated amyloid in their brains, Reisa Sperling, MD from Harvard Medical School presented information on how the presence of vascular risk factors (for example, high body mass index (BMI), high blood pressure, history of cardiovascular disease, smoking) significantly increased the risk of those individuals later developing cognitive decline.
Also from the Harvard Aging Brain Study, Dr. Jennifer Rabin, PhD at Sunnybrook Research Institute followed normal aging individuals with high amounts of amyloid. She found that in addition to vascular risk factors, the amount of physical activity one gets during the day also predicts cognitive stability or decline. In a 6 year study, they found that those who were getting on average 8300 steps a day on an actigraph (one of the many commercially available "watches" that measure your numbers of steps a day) stayed more cognitively stable, while those who got under 3,000 steps a day were more at risk of cognitive decline. You can read more about her research here.
We have been aware that getting sufficient cardiovascular activity helps reduce risk of dementia for years now, and we commonly educate on the importance of trying to get in 150 minutes of cardiovascular activity each week. Dr. Rabin's research adds that just being more active and less sedentary, whether you reach the level of elevated heart rate or not, is important as well. So, in addition to striving for 150 minutes a week of cardiovascular activity, also just try to be more active and less sedentary everyday. While their research showed 8300 steps to be the average number of steps of those doing best, if you are sedentary, any increase in walking is bound to be better than nothing. Also, keep working to control your vascular health: control your blood pressure, maintain a healthy weight, and quit smoking!
If you'd like to receive support as well as support others in a healthy lifestyle including cardiovascular activity, join the Mayo Clinic Connect Healthy Living group.