Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen, University of Utah
The benefits of aerobic exercise for general health and wellbeing are well-known. A new study published in Brain Plasticity may have found another benefit: Aerobic exercise apparently increases brain function in people who are at risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
The most common cause of dementia in elderly adults is Alzheimer’s. The disease destroys brain cells, causing memory loss and a decline in overall cognitive function. It’s a horrible illness that likely affects someone you know personally–1 in 10 American seniors aged 65 and older has it, and rates of the disease are drastically rising. Scientists are working hard to find a cure, but it won’t happen overnight.
However, there are a number of things you can do to stay mentally fit in old age, and aerobic exercise is one of them, according to this study. The study observed 23 sedentary adults in late middle age who had a genetic predisposition to Alzheimer’s disease. The adults were divided into two groups: One group was informed about the benefits of maintaining an active lifestyle. The other group started a treadmill program at moderate intensity, running on treadmills with the supervision of a personal trainer, 3 times a week for 26 weeks.
Prior to beginning the program, both groups received a health assessment. Their cardiovascular functions were measured, along with brain health and rate of physical activity. They also had their cognitive abilities tested–their executive function (mental processes of planning and problem-solving) and episodic memory (the ability to remember specific events.)
After both groups completed the program, they received another health assessment. The group that participated in the treadmill program had better cardiorespiratory health and less sedentary behavior compared to the group who only received information on how to live an active lifestyle. The treadmill group also scored better on the executive function ability test but not the other tests. The group also had increased brain glucose metabolism due to better cardiovascular fitness–in the area of the brain which is targeted by Alzheimer’s disease.
“This study is a significant step toward developing an exercise prescription that protects the brain against AD, even among people who were previously sedentary,” said lead investigator Ozioma C. Okonkwo, PhD. “This research shows that a lifestyle behavior–regular aerobic exercise–can potentially enhance brain and cognitive functions that are particularly sensitive to the disease. The findings are especially relevant to individuals who are at a higher risk due to family history or genetic predisposition.”
The heads of the study are planning to redo the study to confirm their conclusions, this time with a larger amount of participants. But if you or a loved one is suffering from dementia, there’s no reason to wait. Exercising at any age can provide a vast range of physical and mental benefits. In lieu of an Alzheimer’s cure, exercising the body–and brain–might be our best option at the moment.