Ex­er­cise not just for healthy

Get­ting on tread­mill may help se­niors when mem­ory be­gins fad­ing


Ex­er­cise may do more than keep a healthy brain fit: New re­search sug­gests work­ing up a good sweat may also of­fer some help once mem­ory starts to slide- and even im­prove life for peo­ple with Alzheimer’s.

The ef­fects were mod­est, but a se­ries of stud­ies re­ported Thurs­day found vig­or­ous work­outs by peo­ple with mild mem­ory im­pair­ment de­creased lev­els of a warped pro­tein linked to risk of later Alzheimer’s - and im­proved qual­ity of life for peo­ple who al­ready were in early stages of the dis­ease.

“Reg­u­lar aer­o­bic ex­er­cise could be a foun­tain of youth for the brain,” said cog­ni­tive neu­ro­sci­en­tist Laura Baker of Wake For­est School of Medicine in North Carolina, who re­ported some of the re­search at the Alzheimer’s As­so­ci­a­tion In­ter­na­tional Con­fer­ence.

Doc­tors have long ad­vised that peo­ple keep ac­tive as they get older. Ex­er­cise is good for the heart, which in turn is good for the brain. Lots of re­search shows phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity can im­prove cog­ni­tion in healthy older peo­ple, po­ten­tially low­er­ing their risk of de­vel­op­ing de­men­tia.

With no med­i­ca­tions yet avail­able that can slow Alzheimer’s creep­ing brain de­struc­tion, the new find­ings point to lifestyle changes that might make a dif­fer­ence af­ter mem­ory im­pair­ment be­gins as well. The caveat: Check with a doc­tor to de­ter­mine what’s safe for a per­son’s over­all med­i­cal con­di­tion, es­pe­cially if they al­ready have Alzheimer’s.

“It’s im­por­tant for care­givers es­pe­cially to think how to keep loved ones as en­gaged as pos­si­ble. The last thing they should do is keep their loved one at home watch­ing TV,” said Alzheimer’s As­so­ci­a­tion chief science of­fi­cer Maria Car­rillo.

How much ex­er­cise? In stud­ies from North Carolina, Den­mark and Canada, peo­ple got 45 min­utes to an hour of aer­o­bic ex­er­cise three or four times a week, com­pared to se­niors who stuck with their usual sched­ule.

“You’re pant­ing and sweat­ing,” said Baker, whose re­search is get­ting par­tic­u­lar at­ten­tion be­cause it’s one of the first to find ex­er­cise can af­fect tau, an Alzheimer’s hall­mark that causes tan­gles in brain cells.

Baker stud­ied 71 pre­vi­ously seden­tary older adults who have hard-to-spot mem­ory changes called mild cog­ni­tive im­pair- ment that can in­crease risk of de­vel­op­ing Alzheimer’s. They wore mon­i­tors to be sure the ex­er­cis­ers raised their heart rate enough and that the con­trol group kept their heart rate de­lib­er­ately low while do­ing sim­ple stretch classes that al­lowed them to so­cial­ize.

MRI scans showed the ex­er­cis­ers ex­pe­ri­enced in­creased blood flow in brain re­gions im­por­tant for mem­ory and thought pro­cess­ing - while cog­ni­tive tests showed a cor­re­spond­ing im­prove­ment in their at­ten­tion, plan­ning and or­ga­niz­ing abil­i­ties, what sci­en­tists call the brain’s “ex­ec­u­tive func­tion,” Baker re­ported.

Most in­trigu­ing, tests of spinal fluid also showed a re­duc­tion in lev­els of that wor­ri­some tau pro­tein in ex­er­cis­ers over age 70.

“This is re­ally ex­cit­ing,” said Dr. Lau­rie Ryan of the Na­tional In­sti­tute on Ag­ing. “It’s too soon to say that low­ers risk” of wors­en­ing mem­ory, she cau­tioned, say­ing longer stud­ies must test if stick­ing with ex­er­cise makes a last­ing dif­fer­ence.

Later this year, Baker will be­gin a na­tional study that will test 18 months of ex­er­cise in peo­ple with mild cog­ni­tive im­pair­ment. Also re­ported Thurs­day: - Dan­ish re­searchers re­ported vig­or­ous ex­er­cise pre­vented neu­ropsy­chi­atric symp­toms - ag­gres­sion, ir­ri­tabil­ity, delu­sions - in older adults with mild Alzheimer’s.

Sci­en­tists at the Univer­sity of Copenhagen stud­ied 200 older adults for four months, and didn’t find over­all mem­ory im­prove­ments, although the frac­tion that ex­er­cised the most in­tensely did see some im­prove­ment in their men­tal speed and at­ten­tion.

But im­prov­ing qual­ity of life is im­por­tant be­cause those neu­ropsy­chi­atric symp­toms can com­pli­cate care dra­mat­i­cally and are one rea­son that de­men­tia pa­tients end up in nurs­ing homes, said NIA’s Ryan.

-At the Univer­sity of Bri­tish Columbia, re­searchers stud­ied 60 se­niors with a dif­fer­ent kind of mild mem­ory im­pair­ment - caused by clogged ar­ter­ies - and found six months of mostly tread­mill ex­er­cise trig­gered im­prove­ments on cog­ni­tive tests.

Back in North Carolina, a par­tic­i­pant in Baker’s study said that learn­ing to regularly ex­er­cise was chal­leng­ing but he’s glad he did. Michael Gendy, 62, said he’d never no­ticed mem­ory prob­lems be­fore but now says he doesn’t get tired as easily while climb­ing stairs, sleeps bet­ter and oc­ca­sion­ally no­tices a lit­tle speed­ier mem­ory.

“They helped me gear my mind to­ward how im­por­tant it is,” he said of con­tin­u­ing to keep ac­tive.

Baker said seden­tary se­niors can learn to ex­er­cise safely but they have to work up to it grad­u­ally, start­ing 10 min­utes at a time.

“We baby these peo­ple,” she said. “They’re afraid of gyms. They don’t have con­fi­dence in their own abil­ity. We give them in­ten­sive one-on-one at­ten­tion.”

Gendy is try­ing to stick with his new­found ex­er­cise habits, tak­ing a brisk evening walk or a bike ride de­spite the sum­mer heat and sign­ing up for oc­ca­sional classes at the lo­cal YMCA.

“I’m go­ing to keep on as long as I can, as long as my bones and my mus­cles and my brain can with­stand all this,” he said.


This photo pro­vided by the Wake For­est Bap­tist Med­i­cal Cen­ter shows Michael Gendy of King, N.C. Gendy con­tin­ues to ex­er­cise af­ter par­tic­i­pat­ing in a Wake For­est School of Medicine study that found aer­o­bic ac­tiv­ity may lower a risk fac­tor for de­vel­op­ing Alzheimer’s.

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