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Aerobic exercise could slow the cognitive decline of Alzheimer’s, a small new study suggests.
The new research is a 1-year randomized controlled trial led by Prof. Rong Zhang. The team published their findings in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.
Prof. Zhang is affiliated with the departments of neurology, neurotherapeutics, and internal medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, in Dallas.
He and his team previously dedicated their efforts to studying the relationship between exercise and dementia. One such study that Medical News Today reported on found that aerobic exercise preserves the brain health of people with mild cognitive impairment.
Specifically, that study found that regular exercise maintains the integrity of the brain’s white matter, which encompasses billions of nerve fibers and is linked with better executive function. Executive function refers to the brain’s ability to plan, organize, and complete tasks.
Now, the new research has examined the effects of exercise in 70 adults aged 55 or over. The participants had amnestic mild cognitive impairment — the most common form of mild cognitive impairment that affects memory, in particular.
The participants’ brains also had accumulations of beta-amyloid — a protein that is a marker of Alzheimer’s when it builds up to toxic levels.
Speaking about the motivation for the new research, Prof. Zhang asks, rhetorically: “What are you supposed to do if you have amyloid clumping together in the brain? Right now doctors can’t prescribe anything.”
Exercise benefits the hippocampus
So, Prof. Zhang and colleagues monitored “the effect of a progressive, moderate to high intensity” program of aerobic exercise on memory, executive function, brain volume, and cortical levels of beta-amyloid.
They also monitored total brain volume and the brain volume of the hippocampus as secondary outcomes. The hippocampus deals primarily with learning and memory, and Alzheimer’s usually severely affects the area.
The scientists divided the participants into two groups. One group did aerobic training, while the other engaged in stretching and toning control activities.
At the end of the trial, both groups had similar levels of cognitive ability, particularly in terms of memory and problem solving.
However, brain imaging revealed unique benefits for participants who already had buildups of beta-amyloid and who had exercised regularly.
Specifically, their hippocampus had decreased in size a lot less, compared with participants who had not exercised at all.
“It’s interesting that the brains of participants with amyloid responded more to aerobic exercise than the others,” comments Prof. Zhang.
“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.”
More research is necessary
However, the authors emphasize that they do not yet know whether this reduced atrophy actually results in cognitive benefits.
“I’m excited about the results, but only to a certain degree,” Prof. Zhang says. “This is a proof-of-concept study, and we can’t yet draw definitive conclusions.”
“If these findings can be replicated in a larger trial, then maybe one day doctors will be telling high risk patients to start an exercise plan. In fact, there’s no harm in doing so now.”
Prof. Rong Zhang
“Understanding the molecular basis for Alzheimer’s disease is important,” Prof. Zhang says. “But the burning question in my field is, ‘Can we translate our growing knowledge of molecular biology into an effective treatment?’ We need to keep looking for answers.”
Currently, Prof. Zhang is leading a national clinical trial that will further investigate the link between exercise and dementia.
The trial will span 5 years and is looking at whether aerobic exercise training in combination with medications that lower blood pressure and cholesterol can protect cognition and keep brain volume intact.
What to know about Alzheimer’s disease
Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia. Symptoms include memory loss and cognitive decline. At first, symptoms are mild, but they become more severe over time. Sadly, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, but some techniques and medications may help slow progression. We look at causes, risk factors, and diagnosis.
What to know about exercise and how to start
Exercise involves physical activity, exerting the body with movement, and increasing the heart rate. Exercise is vital for looking after and improving our health, and supports physical and mental well-being. This article looks at different types of exercise, how to get involved, and the ways exercise helps.
What are the signs of early-onset Alzheimer’s?
Early-onset Alzheimer’s disease is a form of dementia that begins before the age of 65. Recognizing the initial symptoms can help a person seek treatment earlier and slow the progression of the disease. In this article, learn about ten signs of early-onset Alzheimer’s. We also cover how to help a loved one cope.
What is the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s?
Dementia is an umbrella term that describes symptoms affecting memory and cognitive function. Alzheimer’s disease is a specific, and the most common, type of dementia. The conditions overlap in terms of symptoms, but Alzheimer’s has different and specific treatments as well as unique symptoms. Learn more here.
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