Down syndrome is a genetic disorder, so there is no cure, but the condition of young patients can be improved with occupational and speech therapy if provided at as early as possible. About one in 1,000 children is born with Down syndrome caused by an atypical chromosome arrangement leading to some degree of intellectual disability and delays in motor skills and speech development.
Now, an exploratory study from the UK has shown that light, regular exercise can improve the cognitive, as well as physical, health of adults with Down syndrome.
The research, just published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health under the title “Impact of Prescribed Exercise on the Physical and Cognitive Health of Adults with Down Syndrome: The Mindsets Study” is the first to investigate the effects of physical and cognitive exercise on people with Down syndrome. It found that short bursts of walking can lead to improved information processing and attention after just eight weeks, said the authors led by Prof. Dan Gordon and Viviane Merzbach of Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge.
The importance of cognitive growth
The role that exercise can play in cognitive growth represents a breakthrough in thinking about what’s best for adults with Down syndrome; many people with Down syndrome do not typically meet the recommended levels of daily physical activity.
The study encompassed 83 adult participants recruited following an international campaign by the Canadian Down Syndrome Society. The participants in the Mindsets study – 40 females and 43 males from 10 countries and aged between 18 and 48 – were assigned to one of four groups for an eight-week period.
Participants in an exercise-only group completed cardiorespiratory exercise, which involved walking three times a week for 30 minutes per session, while a second group took part in a series of cognitive and executive function exercises. A combined group did physical and cognitive exercises, while the fourth group did neither.
Participants were provided with a Fitbit watch to record steps completed, distances covered, speeds, and heart rate to record their activity. At the start and end of the eight-week period, all participants took physical and cognitive assessments. The positive effect of eight weeks of exercise on physical fitness was shown by significant increases in the total distance covered in a six-minute walk test, with the exercise-only and the combined groups improving by 11.4% and 9.9%, respectively.
While walking is often a subconscious activity, the researchers noted that the activation of locomotive neural pathways through the process of walking drives cognitive development, as it forces people with Down syndrome to become more vigilant and pay attention to the task at hand.
Gordon said: “Walking, and exercise in general, is not a natural activity for many people in the Down syndrome community, but this study shows walking is a powerful tool for developing cognitive and executive function. For most people, walking is a subconscious activity, but it still involves lots of information processing and decision-making. In our participants with Down syndrome, we think walking has the effect of activating locomotive pathways, driving cognitive development, and improving information processing, vigilance, and attention.”
These findings are potentially huge for the Down syndrome community, particularly as walking is a free activity in which most people can engage. Improved cognitive function can lead to increased societal integration and quality of life, which is important given this is the first generation of those with Down syndrome who will generally outlive their parents,” Gordon concluded.