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Exercise improves physical and cognitive health in Down syndrome



In the first study of its kind, U.K. and French researchers reported that exercise positively affected physical and cognitive health in persons with Down syndrome. “The findings are significant and offer a crucial challenge to the [Down syndrome] and wider societies,” wrote a team led by Dan Gordon, PhD, associate professor of cardiorespiratory exercise physiology at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, England. “Impact of Prescribed Exercise on the Physical and Cognitive Health of Adults with Down Syndrome: The MinDSets Study” was published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

“Through the simple application of walking, a form of exercise which requires little to no equipment or expense, there were significant increases in cognitive and executive function, reflecting improved capabilities in key attributes of information processing, vigilance, and selective attention,” the researchers wrote.

Dr. Dan Gordon, Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, England Dr. Gordon

Dr. Dan Gordon

“Increased cognitive function will help foster increased societal integration and quality of life, which, given that this is the first generation of those with [Down syndrome] to outlive their parents and caregivers, is of importance,” they wrote.

For example, those in an exercise-only intervention arm had an 11.4% improvement on the distance covered in the Six-Minute Walk Test, going from a mean of 498.8 meters before intervention to 522.1 meters afterward. Those in a group that combined group exercise with cognitive training increased the distance walked by 9.9%, or 49.2 meters. Groups that got cognitive training only or no intervention showed no significant changes.

In measures of cognitive function, the exercise group showed a 38% increase in selective attention, with the cognitive and combined groups showing changes for the same measure of 16.5% and 55.3%, respectively. The changes for concentration in the exercise-alone group was 31.5%, while those receiving cognitive training alone or combined exercise plus cognitive training showed improvements in concentration of 21% and 15%, respectively.

Asked why a combination intervention was not superior to exercise alone, Dr. Gordon said in an interview, “Something we’re looking at in the data but can’t fully confirm is that the combined group started to become fatigued due to the double dose of the intervention, and this prevented them in the final tests from doing quite so well as the exercise-alone group. Irrespective of the magnitude of change, any cognitive adaptation observed will be beneficial to this population.”

The evidence for the benefits of exercise on both physical and cognitive health in a non–Down syndrome population are well established, he said, but there were few data on its effect on the Down syndrome population.

One small study showed physical and neurocognitive benefits with resistance training.

“The evidence from previous studies showed increased levels of inactivity and sitting time in Down syndrome individuals compared with non–[Down syndrome] controls, so we hypothesized that exercise, albeit small amounts, would increase their physical fitness,” Dr. Gordon said.

His team also hypothesized that walking would stimulate cognitive development since it requires heightened cognitive engagement compared with inactivity. “What surprised us was the degree of improvement,” Dr. Gordon said.

The process of walking requires the brain to interpret information on a real-time basis from both internal and external cues, he continued. “For most of us this process requires low-level cognitive engagement. However, in the [Down syndrome] population, where motor control is impaired and accompanied by poor muscle tone, walking imposes a heightened cognitive load.” It requires them to concentrate on the action, be aware of their surroundings, and make the right decisions, all of which stimulate areas of the brain that control these functions.


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