Portrait of an older black man in a swimming pool wearing a swimming hat. Exercise is one of several lifestyle factors that can help increase lifespan.
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Vigorous physical activity at least once a week can lower risk of mental decline in people with hypertension, according to a new study from researchers at Wake Forest University School of Medicine. They analyzed data from over 9,000 patients in the landmark SPRINT study. The team found that people who engaged in once or more sessions of vigorous physical activity per week had lower rates of mild cognitive impairment and dementia. The protective impact of vigorous exercise was more pronounced for those under 75. 

The findings appeared in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association. The lead author is Richard Kazibwe, MD, assistant professor of internal medicine at Wake Forest.

“We know that physical exercise offers many benefits, including lowering blood pressure, improving heart health and potentially delaying cognitive decline,” said Kazibwe. “However, the amount and the intensity of exercise needed to preserve cognition is unknown.”

The team used data from the Systolic Blood Pressure Intervention Trial (SPRINT)  trial, which is a randomized, controlled, open-label study. It includes 9,361 nondiabetic U.S. adults at least 50 years of age, at high CVD risk. Findings from SPRINT famously showed that intensive blood pressure management reduced cardiovascular disease and lowered the risk of death.

SPRINT began in the fall of 2009 and included more than 9,300 participants with hypertension ages 50 and older, recruited from about 100 medical centers and clinical practices throughout the U.S. Participants were randomly assigned to a systolic blood pressure goal of either less than 120 mm Hg (intensive treatment) or less than 140 mm Hg (standard treatment).

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) stopped the blood pressure intervention earlier than originally anticipated to quickly help generate new guidelines for controlling blood pressure.

People with high blood pressure are also known to be at higher risk of cognitive impairment, including dementia.

In 2019, results of the associated SPRINT MIND trial showed that intensive control of blood pressure in older people significantly reduced the risk of developing mild cognitive impairment, a precursor of early dementia.

In this current study, a secondary analysis of the SPRINT MIND study data, Kazibwe and team examined the effect of self-reported sessions of vigorous physical activity (at least once a week) on the risk of mild cognitive impairment and dementia.

Their main finding was that people who engaged in one or more sessions of vigorous physical activity per week had lower rates of mild cognitive impairment and dementia.

But, Kazibwe added, it was notable that nearly 60% of study participants reported vigorous physical activity at least once a week, even among those aged 75 and up. 

“It is welcome news that a higher number of older adults are engaging in physical exercise. This also suggests that older adults who recognize the importance of exercise may be more inclined to exercise at higher intensity,” Kazibwe said.

“While this study provides evidence that vigorous exercise may preserve cognitive function in high-risk patients with hypertension, more research is needed to include device-based physical activity measurements and more diverse participant populations,” he added.

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