New research suggests that even a simple exercise routine could help older Americans with mild memory issues.
Doctors have long advised physical activity to help keep the brain healthy. But the government-funded study marks the longest test of whether exercise makes a difference once memory begins to slip – research carried out amid a pandemic that added isolation to the list risks to participants’ brain health.
The researchers recruited about 300 sedentary elderly people with hard-to-spot memory changes called mild cognitive impairment or MCI – a condition that is sometimes, but not always, a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease. Half were assigned aerobic exercises and the rest stretching and balancing movements which only modestly increased their heart rate.
Another key point: Participants in both groups were inundated with attention from coaches who worked with them at YMCAs across the country – and when COVID-19 shut down gyms, they helped them keep moving at home via video calls.
After a year, cognitive tests showed that overall neither group had gotten worse, said lead researcher Laura Baker, a neuroscientist at Wake Forest School of Medicine. Brain scans also didn’t show the shrinkage that accompanies worsening memory problems, she said.
In comparison, similar MCI patients in another long-term brain health study — but without exercise — experienced significant cognitive decline over one year.
These early findings are surprising, and the National Institute on Aging warned that tracking non-exercises in the same study would have offered better evidence.
But the results suggest “it’s doable for everyone” — not just older people healthy enough to sweat profusely, said Baker, who presented the data Tuesday at the Alzheimer’s Association’s international conference. “Exercise must be part of prevention strategies” for older people at risk.
Previous research has shown that regular physical activity of any kind can reduce damaging inflammation and increase blood flow to the brain, said Maria Carrillo, scientific director of the Alzheimer’s Association.
But the new study is particularly intriguing because the pandemic hit halfway through, leaving already vulnerable older people socially isolated — something that has long been known to increase the risk of memory problems, Carrillo said.
It’s a frustrating time for dementia research. Doctors are hesitant to prescribe an expensive new drug called Aduhelm that was supposed to be the first to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease – but it’s not yet known if it really helps patients. Last month, researchers reported that another drug that works in a similar way – by targeting amyloid plaques that are a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease – failed in a key study.
Although amyloid clearly plays a role, it’s important that drugmakers increasingly target many other factors that can lead to dementia, Carrillo said, because effective treatment or prevention will likely require a combination of strategies. personalized.
An example of a new approach: Sometimes in dementia the brain struggles to process sugar and fat in the blood to get the energy it needs, John Didsbury of T3D Therapeutics told the meeting on Alzheimer’s disease. His company is testing a pill that aims to speed up this metabolism, with results expected next year.
Meanwhile, there is growing urgency to determine whether steps people might take today — like exercise — might offer at least some protection.
How much and what type of exercise? In Baker’s study, older people were supposed to move for 30 to 45 minutes four times a week, whether during a vigorous bend on the treadmill or stretching exercises. That’s a big ask for anyone who’s sedentary, but Baker said the effects of MCI on the brain make it even harder for people to plan and stick with the new activity.
Hence the social stimulation – which she attributes to each participant completing more than 100 hours of exercise. Baker suspects that sheer bulk might explain why even simple stretching added up to apparent benefit. Participants were supposed to exercise without formal support for an additional six months, data that Baker has yet to analyze.
“We wouldn’t have done the exercise alone,” said Doug Maxwell, a retired agricultural researcher from Verona, Wisconsin, who joined the study with his wife.
The duo, both 81, were assigned to stretching classes. They felt so good afterward that at the end of the study, they bought e-bikes in hopes of even more activity — efforts Maxwell acknowledges are hard to sustain.
Next step: Baker is conducting an even larger study in older adults to see if adding exercise to other stages that can’t hurt, like heart-healthy eating, brain games and stimulation social, may reduce the risk of dementia.