If someone you love has been diagnosed with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease, one of the best things he or she can do may be to get outside for a frequent brisk walk. This is according to this recent article in the New York Times, which we found encouraging. Hopefully it will encourage you as well.
The article reports on a study out of the University of Kansas that apparently was among the first-ever studies of the potential of physical exercise as a treatment for dementia. Other studies (and there have been several) have focused on the power of exercise to prevent or delay the onset of dementia among otherwise healthy seniors, but this study was different: it concentrated on people already diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The total study group included 70 men and women. Because Alzheimer’s disease affects physical coordination, the researchers looked for people in early stages of the disease who were still living at home and were able to walk unaided.
Alzheimer’s disease is estimated to affect over 5 million Americans and more than 35 million worldwide. There is no reliable cure, although past studies have demonstrated that physically active older people seem less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment, an Alzheimer’s precursor, than their more sedentary counterparts. However, in the words of the Times article, “Little has been known about whether (exercise) might change the trajectory of the disease in people who already have the condition.” That’s what made the University of Kansas study so interesting. After carefully assessing the mental and physical capacity of their subjects, researchers divided them into two groups. One group began a supervised walking program, gradually increasing speed and distance until they were walking briskly for at least two and a half hours each week. The other group began a program of light exercise focusing on stretching and toning, taking the same amount of time and offering the same level of social interaction as the walkers but without any aerobic benefit.
So what happened at the end of the six-month evaluation period? Initial findings were inconclusive. There were cognitive improvements in some of the patients, but the degree of improvement was uneven. In the assessment of the New York Times, “The study’s results, while encouraging, showed that improvements were modest and not universal, raising questions about just how and why exercise helps some people with dementia and not others.” Still, however, there were unexpected bright spots. “Some of the walkers were thinking and remembering much better (after the test period), according to their cognitive tests. These volunteers also generally showed slight increases in the size of their brain’s hippocampus, an area of the brain affected early in the course of Alzheimer’s disease, whereas the other participants did not.”
The question was why some walkers improved while others didn’t – and when the researchers studied their data more closely, they found a possible clue. It turned out that there was a correlation between cognitive improvement and aerobic improvement. “The walkers who had increased their aerobic fitness had also improved their ability to remember and think and bulked up the volume of their brains,” says the Times. Oddly, though, not all the walkers showed better aerobic health. Researchers suspect this inconsistency suggests that Alzheimer’s disease affects how the body responds to exercise. “It seems likely that the right exercise programs could be disease modifying,” said the study leader. “We just don’t know yet what the ideal exercise programs are.”
What’s the bottom line from this first-of-its-kind study? It appeared to demonstrate that improvement in endurance among Alzheimer’s sufferers generally improved cognitive abilities as well. As people’s aerobic fitness improved, their disease progression appeared to slow. We’ll be watching future articles and will report if new research should disclose which exercises seem to show the greatest aerobic improvement for people with Alzheimer’s disease. Meanwhile the advice we often hear about staving off the onset of dementia remains valid: stay active, stay healthy, and stay engaged both mentally and socially. What a blessing it will be to millions of Alzheimer’s sufferers and their families when science finally unlocks a cure for this devastating and frightening condition!
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(originally reported at www.nytimes.com)