Medical researchers hunting for a treatment for dementia are calling their latest discovery an “exciting revelation”.
A new study conducted at the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine (IEEM) in Texas showed that regular exercise can slow down brain deterioration in people at high risk for Alzheimer’s disease.
Dr Rong Zhang, director of the Cerebrovascular Laboratory at the IEEM, said the study found that people who had an accumulation of amyloid beta in the brain experienced slower degeneration in the region that is crucial for memory if they exercised regularly for one year.
In the study of 70 participants aged 55 and older, researchers found aerobic exercise reduced brain hippocampal atrophy in people who already had a lot of amyloid in the brain – a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease.
Although aerobic exercise did not prevent the eventual spread of toxic amyloid plaques blamed for killing neurons in the brains of dementia patients, researchers said the findings suggested an “intriguing possibility that aerobic workouts can at least slow down the effects of the disease if intervention occurs in the early stages.”
The findings, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, merit further research, said Dr Zhang, who is leading a five-year clinical trial in the US to study potential correlations between exercise and dementia.
“Right now, doctors can’t prescribe anything,” he told Forbes.com. “If these findings can be replicated in a larger trial, then maybe one day doctors will be telling high-risk patients to start an exercise plan. In fact, there’s no harm in doing so now.”
Researchers at IEEM compared cognitive function and brain volume between two groups of sedentary older adults with memory issues. One group did at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise four to five times a week. The other group did only flexibility training.
“Both groups maintained similar cognitive abilities during the trial in areas such as memory and problem solving,” researchers said. “But brain imaging showed that people from the exercise group who had amyloid build-up experienced slightly less volume reduction in their hippocampus – a memory-related brain region that progressively deteriorates as dementia takes hold.”
Dr Zhang said: “It’s interesting that the brains of participants with amyloid responded more to the aerobic exercise than the others. Although the interventions didn’t stop the hippocampus from getting smaller, even slowing down the rate of atrophy through exercise could be an exciting revelation.”
The World Health Organisation (WHO) reports that about 50 million people worldwide have dementia and that nearly 10 million new cases are diagnosed every year.
With no cure or even a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease in sight, many researchers are looking at lifestyle modifications. Dr R. Scott Turner, who directs the Memory Disorders Program at Georgetown University Medical Centre, said exercise had been the only thing that has been proven to stave off Alzheimer’s disease.
Dr Zhang said the search for treatment was driving much research. “In fact, many labs and small companies are continuing their efforts to develop new ones or re-purpose old medications with multiple mechanisms and strategies, with a hope to cure or prevent Alzheimer’s,” he said.
“The consensus in the field, however, is that Alzheimer’s is a multi-factorial disease, thus, it is unlikely there would be a silver bullet. Exercise is a low-cost and safe polypill and has demonstrated benefits on cardiovascular health. Thus, it makes sense that exercise may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s.
“Of course, exercise alone may not be the only answer to prevent or treat Alzheimer’s and other chronic diseases. Medical history has told us a good lifestyle – such as exercise, diet, sleep and social engagement – is the foundation for body and mental health.
“But it’s possible that both exercise and medication will be helpful in dealing with debilitating diseases such as Alzheimer’s.”
Do you believe in the benefits of exercise? Do you do 30 minutes of aerobic exercise several times a week?
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