New research hints that even a simple exercise routine just might help older Americans with mild memory problems.
Doctors have long advised physical activity to help keep a healthy brain fit. But the government-funded study marks the longest test of whether exercise makes any difference once memory starts to slide — research performed amid a pandemic that added isolation to the list of risks to participants’ brain health.
Researchers recruited about 300 sedentary older adults with hard-to-spot memory changes called mild cognitive impairment or MCI — a condition that’s sometimes, but not always, a precursor to Alzheimer’s. Half were assigned aerobic exercises and the rest stretching-and-balance moves that only modestly raised their heart rate.
Another key component: Participants in both groups were showered with attention by trainers who worked with them at YMCAs around the country — and when COVID-19 shut down gyms, helped them keep moving at home via video calls. After a year cognitive testing revealed that neither of the groups had experienced any significant changes, according to Laura Baker (a Wake Forest School of Medicine neuroscientist). She said that brain scans did not show shrinkage associated with memory loss.
In comparison, MCI patients who were not subject to exercise in a long-term brain health study experienced cognitive decline for a year.
Those early findings are surprising, and the National Institute on Aging cautioned that tracking non-exercisers in the same study would have offered better proof.
But, the results show that “this is possible for everyone” and not only seniors who are fit enough to exercise, according to Baker. He presented them Tuesday at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference. “Exercise needs to be part of the prevention strategies” for at-risk seniors.
Previous research has found regular physical activity of any sort may reduce damaging inflammation and increase blood flow to the brain, said Alzheimer’s Association chief scientific officer Maria Carrillo.
But the new study is especially intriguing because the pandemic hit halfway through, leaving already vulnerable seniors socially isolated — something long known to increase people’s risk of memory problems, Carrillo said. It’s frustrating times for dementia research. Doctors are hesitant to prescribe a high-priced new drug called Aduhelm that was supposed to be the first to slow progression of Alzheimer’s — but it’s not yet clear if it really helps patients. A key study last month showed that another drug, which targets amyloid plaques — a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease — works in a similar way.
While amyloid clearly plays a role, it’s important that drugmakers increasingly are targeting many other factors that can lead to dementia, Carrillo said, because effective treatment or prevention likely will require a combination of customized strategies.
One 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 Alzheimer’s meeting. The company is currently testing a drug that will boost this metabolism. Results are expected to be available next year.
Meanwhile, there’s growing urgency to settle whether steps people could take today — like exercise — might offer at least some protection.
How much and what kind of exercise? In Baker’s study, seniors were supposed to get moving for 30 to 45 minutes four times a week, whether it was on a vigorous turn on the treadmill or the stretching exercises. This is a huge task for anyone who has been sedentary. Baker stated that MCI’s brain effects make it difficult to stick with a new activity and plan.
Hence the social stimulation — which she credited with each participant completing over 100 hours of exercise. Baker believes that even simple stretching could have an obvious benefit. Participants were supposed to exercise without formal support for an additional six months, data Baker hasn’t yet analyzed.
” We wouldn’t do the exercise alone,” stated Doug Maxwell, a retired agricultural researcher from Verona. Maxwell was accompanied by his wife.
The duo, both 81, were both assigned to the stretching classes. They felt so good afterward that when the study ended, they bought electric bikes in hopes of even more activity — efforts Maxwell acknowledged are hard to keep up. Next up: Baker will be leading an even bigger study with older adults in order to determine if exercise can help reduce dementia risk.
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