Older woman with her dog on a leash, pausing her walk to look at a lake.

Susan’s Clean Green Lifestyle Series, Part 1: Exercise That Prevents Dementia

This post is part one of Susan’s Clean Green Lifestyle Series, exploring ways to improve the quality of our lives.

Of all the lifestyle changes that you can undertake, regular physical exercise is one of the best things you can do to lower your risk of getting dementia.

Why?  Because aerobic exercise improves cognitive thinking and memory retention.

Older woman watering her plants in the garden as part of a healthy green lifestyleA study published in the journal of the American Academy of Neurology showed that walking helps to prevent vascular dementia, the second most common form of dementia after Alzheimer’s disease.  The 13-year Italian study involved 479 men and women who were over 65 years old, and had no memory problems.  In the study, researchers measured the amount of energy that the subjects exerted during their weekly physical activities, including walking, climbing stairs, and other moderately physical activities such as house work, gardening, or other hobbies.  By the end of the study, 27 people had developed vascular dementia and 54 people developed Alzheimer’s.  Researchers found that the top one-third of subjects who exerted the most energy walking approximately a mile a day had more grey matter in their brains and less memory loss than others.  Grey matter is involved in muscle control, seeing, speaking, hearing, and memory.  Participants who scored in the top one-third for energy exertion lowered their risk of vascular dementia by 29 percent and people who were in the top one-third for total physical activity lowered their risk by 24 percent compared to those in the bottom one-third.

The study author, Giovanni Ravaglia, an MD in Bologna, Italy said it was important to note that “an easy-to-perform moderate activity like walking provided the same cognitive benefits as other, more demanding activities.”  Ravaglia postulated reasons for this, the foremost being that physical activity improves the cerebral blood flow, thereby lowering the risk of cerebrovascular disease that is a risk factor for vascular dementia.

Another nine-year study of nearly 1500 individuals started with brain scans that showed no signs of dementia, and concluded with brain scans.  Researchers found that those who walked the most had cut their risk of developing memory loss in half.  The reason? They found that the participants’ brains were stimulated bilaterally, and this action usually continued while they were active or walking. Conversely, when they walked slowly, they were aging fast: A plodding pace at age 45 was a warning sign for dementia, and early death.


Exercise not only lowers the risk of the development of dementia, but also improves cognitive function in the present.

A study published in the journal JAMA Neurology and conducted at Massachusetts General Hospital, saw brain health benefits in people who exercised modestly.

Co-author of the study, Jasmeer Chhatwal, MD and PhD of the MGH Department of Neurology, said that one of the most striking finds from the study was that greater physical activity not only appeared to help lower the risk of dementia, but also showed positive effects on slowing cognitive decline in the present, possibly due to exercise slowing “cortical thinning from beta-amyloid plaques” and preserving gray matter in areas of the brain.

Clearly, exercise is more than jumping on a treadmill.  It is a lifestyle that embraces movement; and a scheduled part of your day for you to think.  Walking, in this way, is exercise for the brain.


Read part two of  Susan’s Clean Green Lifestyle Series about the health benefits of full-spectrum light here.