Even a simple exercise can help age the brain, study tips

Even a simple exercise can help age the brain, study tips

New research suggests that even a simple exercise routine could help older Americans with mild memory problems.

Doctors have long recommended physical activity to keep a healthy brain in shape. But the government-funded study marks the longest test to see if exercise makes a difference once memory begins to slip, a research conducted in the midst of a pandemic that added isolation to the list of risks for the brain health of participants.

Researchers recruited about 300 sedentary seniors 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. Half were assigned aerobic exercise and the rest were assigned stretching and balancing movements that only modestly increased their heart rate.

Another key component: Participants in both groups were showered with attention by the instructors who worked with them at YMCAs across the country, and when COVID-19 closed the gyms, it helped them keep moving. 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. Neither brain scans showed the narrowing that accompanies worsening memory problems, she said.

In comparison, patients with similar MCI in another long-term brain health study, but without exercise, experienced significant cognitive decline over the span of one year.

Those early results are surprising, and the National Institute on Aging warned that monitoring non-coaches in the same study would offer better proof.

But the findings suggest “this is doable for everyone” – not just seniors healthy enough to sweat hard, said Baker, who presented the data Tuesday at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference. “Exercise must be part of the prevention strategies” for the elderly at risk.

Previous research has found that regular physical activity of any kind can reduce harmful inflammation and increase blood flow to the brain, said Maria Carrillo, chief scientist of the Alzheimer’s Association.

But the new study is particularly intriguing because the pandemic is halfway through, leaving the elderly already vulnerable socially isolated, something that has long been known to increase people’s risk of memory problems, Carrillo said.

It is a frustrating time for dementia research. Doctors are reluctant to prescribe an expensive new drug called Aduhelm that was supposed to be the first to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s, but it’s still unclear whether it really helps patients. Researchers last month reported that another drug that works in a similar way – targeting the amyloid plaques that are a hallmark of Alzheimer’s – has failed in a key study.

While amyloid clearly plays a role, it’s important that drug manufacturers increasingly target many other factors that can lead to dementia, Carrillo said, because effective treatment or prevention will likely require a combination of personalized strategies.

An example of a new approach: Sometimes in dementia, the brain has a hard time processing blood sugar and fat for the energy it needs, T3D Therapeutics’ John Didsbury said at the Alzheimer’s meeting. His company is testing a pill that aims to boost metabolism, with results expected next year.

Meanwhile, the urgency is growing to determine whether the steps people could take today, such as exercise, could offer at least some protection.

How much and what kind of exercise? In Baker’s study, seniors were expected to move for 30 to 45 minutes four times a week, regardless of whether it was a vigorous ride on the treadmill or stretching exercises. This is a big request to anyone who is sedentary, but Baker said the effects of MCI on the brain make it even more difficult for people to plan and stick to the new activity.

Hence the social stimulation, which he attributed to each participant who completed over 100 hours of exercise. Baker suspects that the sheer volume could explain why even the simple stretch has led to an apparent advantage. Participants were expected to practice without formal support for another six months, data Baker has not yet analyzed.

“We wouldn’t have done the exercise alone,” said retired agricultural researcher Doug Maxwell of Verona, Wisconsin, who joined the study with his wife.

The two, both 81, were both assigned to stretching classes. They felt so good afterwards that, when the study was done, they bought electric bicycles in hopes of even more business – the efforts Maxwell recognized are hard to keep up with.

Next: Baker is conducting an even larger study in seniors to see if adding exercise to other non-harmful steps like a heart-healthy diet, brain play, and social stimulation combined can reduce the risk of dementia.


The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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