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Aerobic Exercise Improves Mild Cognitive Impairment

  • Jessica Berman

FILE - Patients with Alzheimer's and dementia are seen during a therapy session.

FILE - Patients with Alzheimer's and dementia are seen during a therapy session.

Adults with the early symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease might be able to ward off or slow down its progression through aerobic exercise.

Alzheimer’s disease is difficult to diagnose in the early stages. It begins with mild cognitive impairment – forgetting names and telephone numbers, for example. Of course, many older people who won’t get Alzheimer’s also forget things.

But a new study showed that people with diminishing cognitive skills characteristic of mild cognitive impairment might be able to arrest the process through aerobic exercise – and that could be good news for people who would otherwise go on to develop Alzheimer’s.

Researchers at Wake Forest School of Medicine in North Carolina found that adults with mild cognitive impairment who engaged in both aerobic activity and mild stretching exercises were able to preserve their brain volume or mass.

But Christopher Whitlow, a senior co-author of the research, said seniors in the aerobics group preserved more total brain volume than those in the stretching group.

“Exercise is known to have effects on improving blood flow, improving metabolism, and doing this in areas of the brain that are important to preserve in people transitioning mild cognitive impairment to Alzheimer’s disease,” he said.

Shrinkage in brain volume occurs in people with dementia, and the process can begin years before among people with mild cognitive impairment.

Whitlow and colleagues conducted a study involving 35 adults with mild cognitive impairment. Half of them engaged in aerobic exercise – in which they got their hearts really pumping using a treadmill, stationary bike and elliptical trainer – and the other half did stretching exercises four days a week for six months.

The aerobic group comprised 16 adults, average age 63, and the stretching group 19 adults around the age of 67.

Brain imaging was performed on all of the participants at the beginning of the study and after it concluded.

In both groups, brain volume increased slightly in most gray matter regions, which are important for short-term memory. But compared to the stretching group, researchers found the aerobic group had a greater preservation of total gray matter.

The researchers also noted a slight increase in the size of some key areas of the brain in the aerobics exercisers.

Cognitive tests were also performed and they showed improvement in the more active group, which did statistically better than the adults who engaged in a less vigorous workout.

The findings were presented at a meeting of the Radiological Society of North America.

Whitlow says another factor that may have contributed to the improvements researchers saw was exercising around others, noting "There’s a social component that getting involved in group activity probably is good for the brain.” In other words, working out with other people may stimulate the brain in a beneficial way.

Whitlow and colleagues say they don’t know whether aerobic exercise keeps Alzheimer’s disease at bay, but they say it might help. Whitlow says more research is needed to find that out.

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