Exercising several times a week may delay brain deterioration in people at high risk for Alzheimer’s disease, according to a new study from the University of Texas (UT) Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
Researchers found that among people with an accumulation of amyloid beta in the brain (a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease), those who had exercised regularly for one year experienced slower degeneration in a brain region crucial for memory.
Although exercise did not prevent the eventual spread of toxic amyloid plaques blamed for killing neurons in the brains of dementia patients, the results suggest 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 are published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.
“What are you supposed to do if you have amyloid clumping together in the brain? Right now doctors can’t prescribe anything,” said Dr. Rong Zhang, who led the clinical trial. “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.”
For the study, the research team compared the cognitive function and brain volume of 70 participants ages 55 and older with memory issues. One group did aerobic exercise (at least a half-hour workout four to five times weekly), and another group did only flexibility training.
Both groups maintained similar cognitive abilities during the trial in areas such as memory and problem solving. But brain imaging showed that participants from the exercise group who had amyloid buildup experienced slightly less volume reduction in their hippocampus — a memory-related brain region that progressively deteriorates as dementia takes hold.
“It’s interesting that the brains of participants with amyloid responded more to the aerobic exercise than the others,” said Zhang, who conducted the trial at the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine. “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.”
However, Zhang notes that more research is needed to determine how or if the reduced atrophy rate benefits cognition. He is leading a five-year national clinical trial that aims to dig deeper into potential correlations between exercise and dementia.
The trial, which includes six medical centers across the country, involves more than 600 older adults (ages 60-85) at high risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. The study will measure whether aerobic exercise and taking specific medications to reduce high blood pressure and cholesterol can help preserve brain volume and cognitive abilities.
“Understanding the molecular basis for Alzheimer’s disease is important,” Zhang said. “But the burning question in my field is, ‘Can we translate our growing knowledge of molecular biology into an effective treatment?’ We need to keep looking for answers.”
Source: UT Southwestern Medical Center