Exercise is as good for the brain as it is for the body, and may even prevent and treat Alzheimer’s disease, new research has found.
“Regular aerobic exercise could be a fountain of youth for the brain,” Laura Baker of the Wake Forest School of Medicine, who led one of three similar studies presented at this year’s Alzheimer’s Association International Conference, told NBC News.
Baker’s study involved 70 participants who had mild cognitive impairments and diabetes, both of which raise the risk of Alzheimer’s. The groups were then assigned to either do aerobic exercise or stretch four times weekly for the six-month study period.
Over the course of the study, the researchers took MRI scans of the patients’ brains, looked at their spinal fluid and blood, and tested recall and decision-making.
Those who exercised vigorously had lower levels of a protein associated with Alzheimer’s, had better blood flow in areas of the brain related to memory and processing, and showed better attention and organizational abilities at the end of the study.
A second study, led by Steen Hasselbalch of the University of Copenhagen, involved 200 patients, half of whom exercised three times weekly and half of whom just continued with their daily lives. Those who exercised scored better on memory tests, and had much lower levels of anxiety, irritability and depression, than those who didn’t exercise.
Teresa Liu-Ambrose of the University of British Columbia conducted a third study, which found that exercise can also reduce symptoms of other types of dementia.
Currently, more than five million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s, with that figure expected to grow rapidly as the population ages. There is no known cure, and — despite a great deal of research going into determining both the causes for the disease and possible drug interventions for it — current treatments do little but reduce symptoms for a short period of time.
So if a simple fitness plan could be part of fighting Alzheimer’s disease, that would be a major breakthrough.
“These findings are important because they strongly suggest a potent lifestyle intervention such as aerobic exercise can impact Alzheimer’s-related changes in the brain,” Baker said in a statement. “No currently approved medication can rival these effects.”