The compelling questions are: What increases risk and what can we do to minimize the risk of developing cognitive impairment?
Many chronic diseases and disorders contribute to MCI risk. These include diabetes, heart disease, Parkinson’s disease and strokes. If we can control these maladies, we may reduce our risk of cognitive decline. We know that we can’t stop aging, but we can age well.
Heart disease’s impact
In an observational study, results demonstrated that those suffering from years of heart disease are at a substantial risk of developing MCI. The study involved 1,450 participants who were between the ages of 70 and 89 and were not afflicted by cognitive decline at the beginning of the study.
Patients with a history of cardiac disease had an almost two times greater risk of developing nonamnestic MCI, compared to those individuals without cardiac disease, with women affected more, experiencing a three times increased risk of cognitive impairment.
Nonamnestic MCI affects executive functioning, such as decision-making abilities, spatial relations, problem-solving capabilities, judgments and language. It is a more subtle form of impairment that may lead to vascular dementia and may be a result of clots.
Exercise may play a significant role in preventing cognitive decline and possibly even improving MCI. Interestingly, different types of exercise have different effects on the brain. Aerobic exercise may stimulate one type of neuronal development, while resistance training or weight lifting another.
In an animal study involving rats, researchers compared aerobic exercise to weight lifting. Weight lifting was simulated by attaching weights to the tails of rats while they climbed ladders. Both groups showed improvements in memory tests, however, there was an interesting divergence.
With aerobic exercise, the level of the protein BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) increased significantly. This is important because BDNF is involved in neurons and the connections among them, called synapses, related mostly to the hippocampus, or memory center.
The rats that “lifted weights” had an increase in another protein, IGF (insulin growth factor), that promotes the development of neurons in a different area of the brain.
In a complementary study, women were found to have improved spatial memory when they exercised — either aerobic or weight lifting. Spatial memory is the ability to recall where items were arranged, and verbal memory is the ability to recall words.
Interestingly, verbal memory was improved more by aerobic exercise than by weight lifting. The authors suggest that aerobic exercise and weight lifting affect different parts of the brain.
This was a randomized controlled trial that was six months in duration and involved women, ages 70 to 80, who had MCI at the trial’s start. There were three groups in the study: aerobic, weight lifting and stretching and toning.
Those who did stretches or toning alone experienced deterioration in memory skills over the same period.
Several studies show that the Mediterranean diet helps prevent MCI and possibly prevents conversion from MCI to Alzheimer’s. In addition, a study showed that high levels of carbohydrates and sugars, when compared to lower levels, increased the risk of cognitive decline by more than three times.
The authors surmise that carbohydrates have a negative impact on insulin and glucose utilization in the brain.
Cognitive decline should be taken very seriously, and everything that can be done to prevent it should be utilized. Exercise has potentially positive effects on neuron growth and development, and controlling carbohydrate and sugar intake may reduce risk.
Let’s not squander the opportunity to reduce our risk of MCI, a potentially life-altering disorder.