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Published: Monday, 10/4/2004

Take a hike, Grampa

The market for walking shoes has got to be doing a skip around the block on recent medical news that walking regularly can stave off dementia. Researchers have long believed mental exercise like reading and working crossword puzzles can slow the onset of dementia and Alzheimer s disease. They ve also concluded that rigorous physical activity helps the brain.

But who knew that leisurely strolls in the park as a moderate daily exercise regimen could keep elderly minds healthier longer? It s not every day that medicine prescribes something as simple and inexpensive as walking to preserve nothing less than mental acuity.

Yet a pair of large studies in the Journal of the American Medical Association, one involving men and the other women, indicated a remarkably strong association between cognitive function and walking at an easy pace several hours per week.

Robert Abbot, a biostatistician at the University of Virginia Health System who co-authored the study on just over 2200 men aged 71 to 93 years, found those who walked less than a quarter mile a day were 1.8 times as likely to develop dementia than those who trekked more than two miles daily.

The Harvard School of Public Health researcher who lead the study on women, reached similar conclusions with subjects who walked on a daily basis and those who were less active. What is most striking is that for older women who are able to engage in several hours per week of physical activity (for example, walking at least six hours per week), their cognitive function seemed to be comparable to that of a woman several years young, said study author Jennifer Weuve.

Exercise increases blood flow to the brain and boosts levels of hormones necessary for nerve cell production. Some research suggests it might also reduce levels of a sticky, brain-clogging protein found in Alzheimer patients. Still, walking as little an hour and a half a week wouldn t seem significant enough to prevent mental decline.

But now there is definitive evidence that long strolls can dramatically improve the health and mental function of seniors. Expecting the cynicism of some older people, one researcher emphasized that if anything, the reports say its not too late to have a big influence on your health.

Something to think about while flipping through the walking shoe catalogue.

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