Memory Decline: Exercise May Help Slow or Reverse the Process

Caregiver, patient expert

The common view about memory loss is that nothing can be done to stop the decline or improve symptoms. Researchers are beginning to prove that this type of thinking is outdated.

A study of people with vascular cognitive impairment, published in the journal of the American Academy of Neurology and led by Teresa Liu-Ambrose, P.T., Ph.D., of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada provides some hope. This type of cognitive impairment can lead to full-fledged vascular dementia, the second most common cause of dementia after Alzheimer’s disease (AD).

While other studies have shown exercise to be one of several lifestyle changes that may improve one’s ability to ward off symptoms of dementia, this one confirms that exercise, even once memory decline is evident, can provide a slight benefit to the person affected.

The study concentrated on aerobic exercise. Half the volunteers worked out in one-hour exercise classes three times a week for six months. The other half did not exercise but received monthly information instructing them in the problems of vascular cognitive impairment and the benefits of a healthy diet. They were given no information about exercise.

All were tested before and after the study, and again six months later. Those who exercised improved their memory scores by 1.7 points more than those who did not. Those who stopped exercising eventually lost the benefit.

“This result, while modest, was similar to that seen in previous studies testing the use of drugs for people with vascular cognitive impairment,” Dr. Liu-Ambrose told the American Academy of Neurology.

This study might not help prevent or cure dementias of all types, but its findings do provide hope. For people who feel their memories slipping, it could provide an extra incentive to get off the couch and start moving.

Reversing Alzheimer’s: lifestyle plan shows promise

Progress is slowly being made when it comes to reversing dementia symptoms. One example is the combined efforts of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging and UCLA Easton Laboratories for Neurodegenerative Disease Research. Their scientists have developed a plan referred to as metabolic enhancement for neurodegeneration (MEND).

MEND involves a combination of lifestyle changes that include exercise, along with brain stimulation and medication to reverse early onset Alzheimer’s symptoms. Alzheimer's is the most common type of dementia, followed closely by vascular dementia.

Within the general MEND plan, each patient was given individual plans including not only diet and exercise, but also stress reduction, meditation, supplements, oral hygiene, and sometimes, fasting. While the number of people in the study is small, the results have shown a stunning reversal of early onset Alzheimer’s symptoms.

One in three cases of Alzheimer’s may be lifestyle related

Scientists who attended the 2014 Alzheimer's Association International Conference in Copenhagen concluded that lifestyle changes may hold back Alzheimer’s symptoms for up to 10 years.

Additionally, Heather Snyder, Ph.D., director of Medical and Scientific Operations at the Alzheimer’s Association, told HealthCentral in an interview at the 2016 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Toronto that understanding is growing about the importance of lifestyle changes that can keep our brains healthy as we age:

“In fact, the Alzheimer’s Association has the ‘Ten Ways to Love Your Brain’ that’s based on the science of really thinking about what we can do now,” Dr. Snyder said.

Is dementia hopeless?

The main complaint about the PBS documentary “Alzheimer’s: Every Minute Counts,” which examined the Alzheimer’s crisis, has been that it was too negative because it implied that nothing can be done once the disease becomes evident. HealthCentral examined this viewpoint in Alzheimer’s Documentary Sparks Controversy Over What Some See as Negativity.

While it’s true that dementia, is — in most cases — incurable at this time, people are making a mistake by giving up after a dementia diagnosis. Learning to live well with the disease is vital to having a good quality of life.

Exercise is beginning to look like a key part of living well at any age. The news that exercise can benefit people even after they are diagnosed with dementia is encouraging. Exercise may not be a miracle cure, but if it helps people live their lives with more quality, it seems like an obvious step in the right direction.

See More Helpful Articles:

Midlife Exercise May Have Beneficial Effects on Brain Later in Life

Protein Produced During Exercise May Prevent Alzheimer's

Exercise May Help Prevent Alzheimer’s: Recent Study Shows Why

Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver having spent over two decades caring for a total of seven elders. She is a longtime newspaper columnist and the author of “Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories,” as well as a contributor to several additional books on caregiving and dementia. Her websites can be accessed at Follow Carol on Twitter @mindingourelder and on Facebook Minding Our Elders.