• Allison Vernon-Thompson

Aerobic exercise slows cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s disease

Cardiovascular exercise training may help slow the decline in brain

function seen in Alzheimer’s patients, a new review of past research suggests.

Researchers assessed data from 19 studies conducted between 2002 and 2015 that

examined the effects of exercise on cognitive ability in 1,145 people at risk of or

diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Nearly 90 percent were randomized controlled

trials, which are the most reliable type of study.

Most participants were female (71%); the average age was 77. Just over half of the

study subjects participated either in an aerobic exercise program, or an aerobic

program plus a resistance training intervention. The rest of the study participants

received only usual care.

Aerobic exercises include brisk walking, jogging, swimming, cycling and other

activities that boost the heart rate and strengthen the heart and lungs.

On average, participants exercised 3.5 days per week at moderate intensity, with each

session lasting 30 to 60 minutes. While the programs tested in some of the studies

were as short as 8 weeks, others lasted more than 6 months.

Results indicated that exercise - specifically, cardiovascular exercise - had a strong

favorable impact, researchers reported in the Journal of the American Geriatrics


“We found a statistically significant increase in cognitive function that favored the

groups receiving the exercise interventions compared to the non-exercise control

groups,” lead study author Gregory Panza, from the University of Connecticut in

Storrs, told Reuters Health by email.

For example, he said, among people with similar cognitive test scores at the start, “an

individual in the exercise group would score higher on the cognitive function tests

than 69% of patients in the non-exercise control group” by the end of the study.

Cognitive function was most commonly assessed using the Mini-Mental State Exam

(MMSE), but other validated tools also were used. The tools evaluate things like

problem solving and processing speed, motor ability, multi-tasking and recollection of

events as well as object recognition and ability to plan, all of which serve as proxies

for mental sharpness.

The positive effect of exercise wasn’t the only thing researchers discovered.

“True, we found that brain function improved,” coauthor Linda Pescatello, also from

the University of Connecticut, said in a phone interview. “But in the group that did

not receive exercise, there was actually a deterioration. This deterioration was

unanticipated and really accentuates the importance of our findings.”

Adding resistance training to aerobic exercise did not appear to make a difference,


This study is the first to suggest that aerobic exercise may be more effective than

other types of exercise when the goal is to preserve the cognitive health of older adults

at risk of or with Alzheimer’s disease, Panza said.

“Exercise can change the brain chemistry. It can change neurotransmitters associated

with depression, anxiety and stress as well as brain chemicals associated with

learning,” said Carol Ewing Garber, Director of the Applied Physiology Lab at

Columbia University, Teachers College, in New York City, who wasn’t involved in

the study. “These changes can result in improved mood, resilience to stress and

improve functions of the brain such as processing speed, attention, short term memory

and cognitive flexibility among other things.”

“To date, evidence supports aerobic exercise as the preferred modality for

(Alzheimer’s disease), but more studies are needed to confirm this,” Pescatello said.

“This is a relatively new area of research, and there really just isn’t enough data

available to make a clear determination.”

SOURCE:bit.ly/2CmXVdj Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, online

January 24, 2018.

Written by Mary Gillis originally published in Reuters Health.

Photo by Yukie Emiko on Unsplash


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