To date, scientists have not discovered how to prevent or cure Alzheimer’s disease, a form of dementia that affects more than 5 million people in the United States and is the sixth leading cause of death. However, recent research shows that exercise may help preserve cognitive function in those at risk for developing the disease, and could be a useful alternative or adjunct to drug therapy in slowing the disease’s progression in those affected.
Alzheimer’s disease is a form of dementia that causes a progressive decline in mental ability and affects an individual’s capacity to perform daily tasks. It is usually accompanied by memory loss, altered thought patterns, and behavioral changes. The disease is not considered to be a part of normal aging, although it predominantly affects those who are 65 or older. A small percentage of individuals (approximately 5 percent) experience early onset of the disease in their 40s or 50s.
Common signs of Alzheimer’s are listed below. In the early stages of the disease, mild memory loss is common, but eventually, affected individuals may withdraw, becoming unresponsive to their environment, disoriented, and unable or unwilling to interact with the people in their lives. In advanced stages, they may even have difficulty speaking, walking, or swallowing.
Exercise has long been known to have positive health effects at all ages and stages of life. For instance, it helps decrease stress, reduce the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and improve bone and muscle strength. But did you know that research has also shown that exercise can benefit those at risk for or diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease? Indeed, exercising for a half hour to an hour several times a week may:
Below are just some of the findings from recent studies that examine the benefits of exercise for individuals with cognitive impairment associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
Animal research also shows the positive effects of exercise on cognitive function. In one study, scientists tested learning in two groups of caged mice. One group had access to an exercise wheel and one did not. The animals that exercised performed better and faster on a Morris water maze test than the non-active mice. The results also indicated that levels of brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), which is known to stimulate neurons, increased in the animals that exercised, particularly in the areas of the brain that control thinking and learning.
Additional studies are necessary to determine how exercise affects cognitive function, as well as the potential role of physical activity in improving memory and learning and slowing the progression of cognitive and functional decline in individuals with Alzheimer’s disease. What is clear is that the research conducted thus far indicates that even moderate exercise may benefit cognition, and it certainly improves overall health and fitness for people of all ages.