In a pilot study, researchers investigated the potential of regular aerobic exercise in Alzheimer’s disease prevention.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, a progressive brain condition that impairs memory, thought processes, and behavior. Dementia usually affects older people, although it is not a normal part of aging. With people living longer worldwide, the human and economic costs of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia are projected to grow rapidly in the future.
Preventative measures could reduce risk or slow progression of Alzheimer’s disease
The causes of Alzheimer’s disease are still unclear, although some people may have a genetic predisposition, which increases their risk of developing the illness. Current drug treatments have limited benefits and attention is turning to measures that could help in Alzheimer’s disease prevention or slow its progression. Aerobic exercise has been shown to improve brain function in people with Alzheimer’s disease, but it is not known if it could have preventative effects. Researchers in the US investigated whether aerobic exercise could improve brain function in healthy, but sedentary, middle-aged healthy adults with a family history or genetic predisposition for Alzheimer’s disease. They recently reported their findings in Brain Plasticity.
Aerobic exercise program improved brain function measures
In this pilot study, the researchers recruited 23 late-middle age volunteers with a family history or a genetic predisposition for Alzheimer’s disease. The volunteers were generally healthy but had a sedentary lifestyle. They were randomly assigned to receive a supervised 26-week program of moderate-intensity aerobic treadmill training three times per week (Enhanced Physical Activity group) or to receive general advice on maintaining a healthy life but no training program (Control group). The researchers tested the volunteers’ cardiorespiratory fitness, daily physical activity, and cognitive function at the start of the study and after the 26-week program. The volunteers also had brain imaging tests at the start and end of the study to measure brain glucose metabolism, a measure of brain health.
Volunteers in the Enhanced Physical Activity group improved their cardiorespiratory fitness, spent less time sedentary following the training program and performed better on most aspects of the cognitive tests than those in the Control group. The improved cardiorespiratory fitness was associated with increased brain glucose metabolism in an area of the brain linked to Alzheimer’s disease.
Larger studies needed to confirm findings and develop “exercise prescription”
“This research shows that a lifestyle behavior – regular aerobic exercise – can potentially enhance brain and cognitive functions that are particularly sensitive to the disease,” commented Dr. Ozioma Okonkwo, one of the lead authors of the study. The study is an important step towards developing an “exercise prescription” than could protect the brain against Alzheimer’s disease, even in previously sedentary individuals. If these encouraging results are supported in larger study it could have an important impact on the quality of life of those at risk of Alzheimer’s disease, providing more years of healthy independent living.
Written by Julie McShane, MA MB BS
- Gaitan JM, Boots EA, Dougherty RJ, et al. Brain glucose metabolism, cognition, and cardiorespiratory fitness following exercise training in adults at risk for Alzheimer’s Disease. Brain Plasticity 2019; 5(1):83-95.
- IOS PRESS, Press release, Feb 3, 2020. “Aerobic exercise training linked to enhanced brain function.” https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2020-02/ip-aet020220.php
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