Regular exercise appears to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s in middle-aged people at risk of the disease, according to research presented at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association.
Ozioma Okonkwo, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Wisconsin presented results from several studies, including one that followed 317 at-risk patients for years.
Many studies show exercise helps increase blood flow to the brain, bringing needed oxygen and nutrients to all areas, including those that help support the formation of new memories and the growth of new brain cells.
Although participants overall showed more physical signs of Alzheimer’s, known as biomarkers, as they aged, the effects were “significantly weaker” in older adults who engaged in the equivalent of at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise five days a week.
Carol Hahn, a committee member for the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation, said the newest studies confirm the role of exercise in maintaining a healthy brain.
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“Many studies show exercise helps increase blood flow to the brain, bringing needed oxygen and nutrients to all areas, including those that help support the formation of new memories and the growth of new brain cells called neurons,” Hahn, who is also a nurse, said.
“This increase in neurons is thought to lead to improvements in memory, language ability, and attention while delaying the onset of cognitive decline,” she added.
Okonkwo and his colleagues examined 317 people enrolled in the Wisconsin Registry for Alzheimer’s Prevention, an ongoing observational study of more than 1,500 people with a family history of dementia.
Registrants were cognitively healthy and between the ages of 40 and 65 years at the time of enrollment. Researchers logged their initial biological, health and lifestyle factors associated with the disease and conducted follow-up assessments every two to four years.
All participants answered questions about their physical activity and underwent neuropsychological testing and brain scans to measure several biomarkers associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
The researchers compared data from individuals younger than 60 with older adults and found a decrease in cognitive abilities and an increase in biomarkers in the older group. However, the effects were much weaker in seniors who engaged in regular, moderate activity.
“Being physically active should be incorporated throughout our lives,” Hahn said. “Meeting the recommendations in the 2018 physical activity guidelines for Americans can lead to improved cognition, reduced risk of dementia (including Alzheimer’s disease) and many more long-term health benefits.”
Hahn added that she frequently collaborates with clients to find some physical activity they enjoy, can routinely do and will build into their lifestyles.
“You don’t have to spend a lot of money, join a gym or take an organized class,” Hahn said. “Do something you enjoy — go for a walk, rake the leaves or play tennis with a friend. Learning a new skill and being socially active is also good for the brain.”