Taking regular, brisk walks may help to slow memory decline in those with early Alzheimer’s, a new study suggests. The findings, from researchers at the University of Kansas, add to a growing body of research showing that exercise is good for the brain at any stage of life, even for seniors who already have Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.
For the study, published in the journal PLOS One, the scientists studied 68 older men and women in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Their average age was about 73.
Half were enrolled in a rigorous, six-month exercise program that involved brisk walking and similar aerobic activity. Volunteersparticipated in three to five exercise sessions a week, building up to a total of at least 150 minutes of exercise a week. The exercises were done at 16 YMCA’s in the Kansas City area,and supervised and monitored by trained exercise specialists.
The other half were enrolled in a less rigorous exercise program that involved mainly stretching and toning exercises but little aerobic activity. Participants engaged in activities like core strengthening exercises, resistance band training, and modified tai chi and yoga programs, activities that kept their heart rates under 100 beats per minute.
All the participants were given periodic tests of memory and thinking skills during the six months of the study. They also underwent MRI scans to assess any changes in the brain.
At the end of six months, those in the exercise group could generally move and get around better; their caregivers noted that they were more efficient in carrying out day-to-day activities like dressing and feeding themselves. They also tended to showless decline in memory skills than those in the stretching group. Benefits were modest, however, and not everyone in the exercise group showed cognitive improvements.
Brain scans also revealed that those who had gotten aerobic exercise also tended to have less shrinkage in the hippocampus, a part of the brain critical for memory. The hippocampus is among the first areas of the brain typically affected by Alzheimer’s disease, and less brain shrinkage is associated with preservation of memory and thinking skills.
Studying the impact of exercising continues to be a promising area of Alzheimer’s disease research. Other studies have shown that regular walking and physical activity may help to ward off Alzheimer’s in old age. People who exercise regularly in middle age, for example, are at lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s in old age. Other studies have shown that those with mild cognitive impairment, a form of memory loss that often precedes dementia, were less likely to progress to full-blown Alzheimer’s if they got regular exercise.
These latest findings suggest that activities like walking can have benefitsat any age, even in seniors who already have Alzheimer’s disease. Exercise helps to generate new cells in the hippocampus, earlier research has found. Regular physical activity is also critical for blood vessel health, including the blood vessels that nourish the brain. So regardless of age, it’s probably a wise idea to take a walk, or two, or three.
By ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer’s Information Site. Reviewed by Marc Flajolet, Ph.D., Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University.
Source: Jill K. Morris, Eric D. Vidoni, David K. Johnson, et al: “Aerobic exercise for Alzheimer’s disease: A randomized controlled pilot trial.” PLOS One, February 10, 2017