Research Accumulating on Exercise's Role in Delaying Dementia

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • If you’re like me, you worry about Alzheimer’s disease. Having seen it up close due to my mother and grandmother having this terrible disease, I know that I really don’t want it. But the experts will tell you that there’s no proven way to prevent it and no way to cure it.

    But there IS growing evidence that lifestyle decisions may make a difference. For instance, a new study out of Portugal found that older people who regularly participate in physical activity may see their risk of dementia drop by 40 percent and that exercise also may actually be protecting their cognitive ability.

    This three-year study involved 600 men and women who were in their 60s and 70s. The participants were asked to have magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) tests of their brain at the start of the study as well as at the end of the three-year period so that researchers could identify any changes in white matter, which is an indicator of possible cognitive decline. “Damage of the cerebral white matter is implicated in cognitive problems including depression, walking difficulties and urinary complaints,” said Dr. Ana Verdelho, a neuroscience researcher at the University of Lisbon, Santa Maria Hospital, who served as the study’s lead author. “White matter changes are very common in older people and mainly associated with vascular risk factors like hypertension and stroke.”

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    During the study, almost 64 percent of the participants participated in at least 30 minutes of daily physical activity three times a week. These activities included attending an exercise class, walking or biking. The researchers also periodically asked participants about their quality of life, ability to perform regular activities and whether they had any depression.

    At the end of the study, 90 participants had developed dementia, of whom 54 had vascular dementia and 34 had Alzheimer’s disease. Additionally, 147 participants were have cognitive difficulties, but had not developed dementia.
    "We strongly suggest physical activity of moderate intensity at least 30 minutes three times a week to prevent cognitive [thinking] impairment," Verdelho said in a American Heart Association news release. "This is particularly important for people with vascular risk factors such as [high blood pressure], stroke or diabetes."

    And another study out of Canada that was released earlier this year found that seniors who participated in resistance training slowed their cognitive decline. This six-month study involved 86 women between the ages of 70-80 who were randomly assigned to three groups.  The first group was asked to do resistance training, such as lifting weights, in order to strengthen muscles. The second group walked outdoors while the third group took basic balance and toning classes. All of the classes were held twice weekly.

    After analyzing the data, the Canadian researchers found that the group that did resistance training had improved cognitive performance. Furthermore, scans of the brains of participants who were in the strength-training group also showed changes in activity in brain areas that are linked to cognitive behavior. And this group had significantly better results as far as cognitive improvement when compared to the group that took part in the balance and tone classes.

  • Interestingly, the group that walked did not show the same level of cognitive improvement as the resistance training group. The researchers hypothesized that the participants had to learn the resistance routines, which contributed to their improvement, as compared to just doing the natural exercise of walking.
    "What is key is that it (resistance training) will improve two processes that are highly sensitive to the effects of aging and neurodegeneration: executive function and associative memory — often impaired in early stages of Alzheimer's disease,” said Dr. Teresa Liu-Ambrose, the study’s lead researcher, told CBC News.

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    So what does this mean? My takeaway is that people who are worried about the threat of Alzheimer’s should start exercising as a way to strengthen their brain and potentially delay the onset of dementia and mental decline. And ideally, that exercise regimen should include a variety of types of exercises, such as aerobic and resistance training. While researchers still say there isn’t a cure for Alzheimer’s, I know you’ll join me in wanting to be as proactive as possible in fighting off this terrible disease.

    Primary Sources for This Sharepost:

    American Heart Association. (2012). Regular physical activity reduces the risk of dementia in older people.

    CBC News. (2012). Weight training staves off dementia in older women.

Published On: November 02, 2012