Research from UT Southwestern found that people who had accumulation of amyloid beta in the brain–a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease–experienced slower degeneration in a region of the brain crucial for memory if they exercised.
Although exercise did not prevent the eventual spread of toxic amyloid plaques blamed for killing neurons in the brains of dementia patients, the findings from the trial (which included 70 participants ages 55 and older) suggest an intriguing possibility that aerobic workouts can at least slow down the effects of the disease if intervention occurs in the early stages.
“What are you supposed to do if you have amyloid clumping together in the brain? Right now, doctors can’t prescribe anything. If these findings can be replicated in a larger trial, then maybe one day doctors will be telling high-risk patients to start an exercise plan. In fact, there’s no harm in doing so now.”– Dr. Rong Zhang, Director of the Cerebrovascular Laboratory at the IEEM & Professor of Neurology & Neurotherapeutics and Internal Medicine at UT Southwestern
Details of the trial
The study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease compared cognitive function and brain volume between two groups of sedentary older adults with memory issues: One group did aerobic exercise (at least a half-hour workout four to five times weekly), and another group did only flexibility training.
Both groups maintained similar cognitive abilities during the trial in areas such as memory and problem solving. But brain imaging showed that people from the exercise group who had amyloid buildup experienced slightly less volume reduction in their hippocampus–a memory-related brain region that progressively deteriorates as dementia takes hold.
“It’s interesting that the brains of participants with amyloid responded more to the aerobic exercise than the others. Although the interventions didn’t stop the hippocampus from getting smaller, even slowing down the rate of atrophy through exercise could be an exciting revelation.”– Dr. Rong Zhang
However, Dr. Zhang notes that more research is needed to determine how or if the reduced atrophy rate benefits cognition.
Five-year, multi-center research
Dr. Zhang is leading a five-year national clinical trial that aims to dig deeper into potential correlations between exercise and dementia. The trial, which includes six medical centers across the country, involves more than 600 older adults (ages 60-85) at high risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
The study will measure whether aerobic exercise and taking specific medications to reduce high blood pressure and cholesterol can help preserve brain volume and cognitive abilities.
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