A study claims people who had mild cognitive impairment saw an improvement in symptoms over six months.

Doing regular exercise in the very early stages of dementia could help to reduce symptoms, claim researchers from Wake Forest School of Medicine in North Carolina.

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is often considered to be the very early stage of dementia, or a precursor. It causes memory problems that are noticeable, but don’t get in the way of everyday life.

During the study, researchers looked at two groups of people aged 55 to 89 whose brain power and memory was declining. One group did 45 minutes of intensive exercise in a gym, in which they raised their heart rate to at least 70% of its maximum, four times a week. This is the equivalent of a jog. The other group, did gentle stretches.

After six months, the first group saw some of these symptoms reversed - demonstrating improvements in their ability to plan, multi-task and carry out normal daily activities. Blood flow to their brain increased and they showed lower levels of tau proteins, which play a role in damage to the brain which can cause Alzheimer’s disease.

The second group, who did stretching, showed none of the improvements seen by the first. In fact, their brains shrank, blood flow to the brain remained poor, and their ability to carry out daily tasks continued to decline as it had been doing before. Their tau levels did not decrease.

Interestingly, the researchers also repeated the process with 76 people who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

They discovered that while the results weren’t quite as dramatic, there were signs that the exercise was starting to have an effect.

Scans of the hippocampus, a part of the brain which is crucial for thought and emotion – showed it had grown among patients who had done the exercise programme. And while there was no improvement in memory, but decline was slower among those who carried out aerobic exercise than those who simply did the stretching.

The researchers believe that it may just be a case that exercise needs longer to take effect in those with Alzheimer’s disease compared to those with MCI.

Dr James Pickett, head of research at the Alzheimer's Society, said:

‘This research suggests that it's never too late to take up exercise when you can.

‘When we think of new treatments for memory problems, we should make sure that we consider things alongside drugs. Whilst exercise is increasingly thought to help reduce dementia risk, some new evidence indicates that it could also benefit people who are already experiencing memory problems by helping to slow development of dementia symptoms.’

The research was presented during last week’s Alzheimer’s International Conference in Toronto.

Source: Daily Mail