While scientists continue to search for effective drug therapies that can help treat Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias, researchers are finding that a relatively low-tech tool may be able to slow decline in older adults experiencing memory or thinking problems: exercise.
In a randomized controlled trial, nearly 300 sedentary adults with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a condition characterized by memory loss and confusion that is sometimes a precursor to dementia, were split into two groups: Half engaged in aerobic exercise and the other half took up stretching and balance exercises.
Both groups worked out four days a week for about 30 to 40 minutes per day, and half of the exercise sessions were supervised by personal trainers. After 12 months, study participants in both the aerobic exercise group and the stretching group showed no signs of cognitive decline, which is atypical given their condition. For comparison’s sake, older adults with mild cognitive impairment in another study group who didn’t have an exercise intervention showed significant cognitive decline over 12 months, the researchers found. The results were presented Aug. 2 at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in San Diego.
“We’re excited about these findings because I think this intervention and the type of exercise that we’re seeing that can protect against cognitive decline is accessible to everyone and therefore scalable to the public,” says Laura Baker, associate director of the Wake Forest Alzheimer’s Disease Center and principal investigator on the so-called EXERT study.
EXERT is the longest and largest trial looking at the impact of exercise on mild cognitive impairment to date, and researchers say the greater “volume” of exercise may have provided more brain benefits, regardless of the intensity. What’s more, both the intensive exercise group and the less-intensive exercise group had a socialization aspect “which may have contributed to this protection,” the study authors write. Research has shown that staying socially active can be a boon for the brain and may reduce the risk of cognitive decline.
These latest findings, which have yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, add to a growing body of research that finds heart-healthy habits, like staying physically active, controlling high blood pressure and eating nutrient-rich foods, are important not just for the heart but for the brain, too.
In a 2016 report from the Global Council on Brain Health titled “The Brain-Body Connection,” experts working with AARP discussed existing evidence showing that exercise benefits the structure and function of the brain. But the council called for more research to determine if exercise could actually reduce the risk of brain diseases that cause dementia.