New research suggests that even a simple exercise routine can help older Americans with mild memory problems.
Doctors have long advised that physical activity helps keep a healthy brain. But the government-funded study marks the longest-running test of whether exercise makes any difference when memory starts to slip – research conducted amid the pandemic has added isolation to the list of risks to the participants’ brain health.
The researchers recruited about 300 sedentary older adults with subtle memory changes known as mild cognitive impairment or MCI — a condition that is sometimes, but not always, a precursor of Alzheimer’s disease. Half were assigned aerobic exercises and the rest were stretching and balancing movements that only modestly increased their heart rate.
Another key ingredient: Participants in both groups were noticed by trainers who worked with them at YMCAs around the country – and when COVID-19 closed gyms, that helped they continue to move at home through video calls.
After a year, cognitive testing showed no group had deteriorated overall, said Laura Baker, a neuroscientist at Wake Forest School of Medicine. Nor did the brain scans show the shrinking that accompanies worsening memory problems, she said.
By comparison, similar MCI patients in another long-term brain health study – but without exercise – experienced significant cognitive decline over a year.
Those early findings were surprising, and the National Institute on Aging warned that following non-exercise people in the same study would provide better evidence.
But the results suggest “this can be done for everyone” — not just seniors who are healthy enough to work a sweat, said Baker, who presented the data Tuesday at the National of the Alzheimer’s Disease Association. “Exercise should be part of prevention strategies” for at-risk seniors.
Previous research has found that regular physical activity of any kind can reduce harmful inflammation and increase blood flow to the brain, says Maria Carrillo, scientific director of the Alzheimer’s Association said.
But the new research is particularly intriguing because the pandemic has hit midway, leaving already vulnerable seniors socially isolated — something that has long been known to increase the risk of contracting the disease. memory problems, says Carrillo.
It’s an uncomfortable time for dementia research. Doctors hesitate to prescribe a high-priced new drug called Aduhelm is believed to be the first method of slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s disease – but it is not yet clear if it will actually help patients. Researchers last month reported another drug that works similarly – by targeting the amyloid plaques that are hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease – failed a key study.
“While amyloid plays an important role, it is important that drug manufacturers increasingly target the many other factors that can lead to dementia, as effective treatment or prevention,” Carrillo said. Results will likely require a combination of custom strategies.
An example of a new approach: Sometimes in dementia, the brain has trouble processing blood sugar and fats for the energy it needs, John Didsbury of T3D Therapeutics told the meeting. Alzheimer. His company is testing a pill aimed at boosting metabolism, with results expected next year.
Meanwhile, it is increasingly urgent to address whether steps people can take today – like exercising – can provide at least some protection.
How much and what kind of exercise? In Baker’s study, seniors were told to be physically active for 30 to 45 minutes four times a week, whether on a vigorous treadmill or stretching exercises. That’s a big question for anyone who’s sedentary, but Baker says the effects of MCI on the brain make it even harder for people to plan and stick to a new activity.
Hence the social stimulation – which she noted when each participant completed more than 100 hours of exercise. Baker suspects that sheer volume can explain why even simple stretching provides a clear benefit. Baker’s data has yet to be analyzed.
“We’re not going to do this exercise alone,” said Retired Agricultural Researcher Doug Maxwell of Verona, Wisconsin, who participated in the study with his wife.
The duo, both 81, were assigned to extended classes. After that, they felt so good that when the study ended, they bought the e-bike in the hope of being able to do more – efforts that Maxwell admits are hard to keep up with.
Next up: Baker is leading an even larger study of older adults to see if adding exercise to other unlikely steps like a heart-healthy diet, brain games and Can social stimulation together reduce dementia risk?
The Associated Press Health and Science Division receives support from the Howard Hughes Health Institute’s Science Education Department. AP is solely responsible for all content.