Exercise leads to benefit in people with existing memory and thinking problems – headlines from Alzheimer’s Association International Conference

Posted on 23rd July 2015

A number of studies presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference, showed that regular supervised exercise sessions could help to improve symptoms in people with memory problems and dementia.

Possible benefits of regular exercise to people with Alzheimer’s disease

Researchers at the Danish Dementia Research Centre in Denmark worked with 200 people with Alzheimer’s disease, half of whom they asked to undertake a 16 week supervised exercise program, while the remaining participants did no extra exercise. The exercise group completed 60 minute exercise sessions three times a week. They found that while the exercise program didn’t seem to have an effect on memory and thinking skills, the group of people who undertook the exercise program had fewer symptoms such as depression, irritability and anxiety.

Exercise may help reduce levels of culprit Alzheimer’s protein

Tau is a hallmark protein which builds up in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers at Wake Forest University Health Sciences in the US looked at levels of tau in spinal fluid in 65 sedentary people between 55 and 89 years of age who had mild memory and thinking problems and pre-diabetes. The participants were invited to take part in supervised exercise over a six month period, which took the form of either aerobic activity or stretching exercises. The researchers found that people who took part in aerobic exercise showed a reduction in levels of tau protein measured in spinal fluid, and an improvement in certain aspects of thinking ability.

Exercise helps treat people with certain memory and thinking problems

Problems with memory and thinking caused by damage to the brain’s blood vessels is known as vascular cognitive impairment (VCI).  Researchers at the University of British Columbia completed a six month study involving 71 adults between 56 and 96 years with VCI. They investigated the effect of either supervised aerobic exercise for 60mins three times a week or normal care plus a monthly educational seminar on nutrition. Those participants enrolled onto the regular exercise programme showed an improvement in memory and thinking ability compared to those receiving normal care.

Dr Laura Phipps of Alzheimer’s Research UK said:

“We have known for some time that exercise is one factor that could reduce the risk of developing dementia, but these studies indicate that there may also be a benefit of exercise for people who already have memory and thinking problems. Where appropriate, exercise can not only provide aerobic benefits but be an enjoyable and social experience for people with early memory problems and dementia. It will be important to look in more detail at these findings to try to unpick the mechanisms through which exercise could be acting.”

“While some of these studies were quite small, trials like these where participants are randomly placed into groups which can then be directly compared, offer the best method for investigating the possible benefit of a medication, lifestyle change or other intervention. As current treatments for dementia are limited, it is important to carry out more research like this to find new ways to provide benefit to people living with the condition. Rigorous trials like these can be very expensive to run and we desperately need to see more investment in research to allow more of this work to take place.”

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