Exercise Found to Slow the Effects of Alzheimer’s Disease

Just thirty minutes of aerobic exercise a few times a week could prevent—or, at least, slow—the cognitive decline in older adults at higher risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease.  A new study—only a small, proof-of-concept trial (about 600 people)—involved people aged 55 and older who already had mild cognitive impairment.  These subjects were randomized into different activity groups for 12 months, including things like aerobic exercise or stretching and muscle toning.  

Lead study author Rong Zhang comments that this is the first randomized and controlled trial which assessed the effects of exercise on brain structure, function and amyloid burden in aging adults who have existing memory problems and are, thus, at an elevated risk for Alzheimer’s disease. 

This is quite a revelation for Alzheimer’s research as the search for dementia therapies grows evermore persistent.  At least 5 million people suffer Alzheimer’s disease in the United States, alone. And these numbers are expected to triple by 2050.  The latest research has helped scientists to get a better understanding of the disease’s molecular genesis.  But even with billions of dollars invested in research—some of which helping to fund a recent UT Southwestern discovery—we have not yet reached a proven treatment. 

One of the things we are more certain about, though, is that Alzheimer’s disease is the result of many years—even several decades—of the buildup of amyloid plaques in the brain.  With more and more studies supporting the link between fitness and brain health, this new study certainly provides a little relief for those who may be affected by Alzheimer’s disease, at least until a more definitive cure can be found. 

Dr. Zhang is currently heading up a five-year national clinical trial focused on defining the association between exercise and dementia.  As such, the UT Southwestern Medical Center neurology professor explains, “It’s interesting that the brains of participants with amyloid responded more to the aerobic exercise than the others.  Although the interventions didn’t stop the hippocampus from getting smaller, even slowing down the rate of atrophy through exercise could be an exciting revelation.”

The study was conducted at the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine and has been published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease