A recent article from the New York Times reports on a study that achieved modest improvement in the physical decline and memory loss for some people in the early-stages of Alzheimer’s. Conducted by the University of Kansas, it is one of the first studies to use physical activity as an experimental treatment for dementia and their results suggest frequent, brisk walks may help to “bolster physical abilities and slow memory loss”
While the improvements were not universal in all study participants, researchers are now considering the question of why exercise helps some people with dementia and not others. We know earlier studies support a correlation between regular physical exercise and improved memory and also find that active seniors are less likely to develop mild cognitive decline, which is a frequent precursor to Alzheimer’s. This may be due to the fact that brain scans show physically active older people have more volume in their brain’s hippocampus (the part of the brain linked to memory function) than their sedentary peers.
Until this study, most of the research has involved trying to prove whether or not exercise can help to prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s. In this new research, published by PLOSOne, it considers whether or not exercise can help to improve the trajectory of the disease. The participants were all older adults who had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and were still in the early stages. They also had the ability to walk well.
The research “assessed the effect of 26 weeks (6 months) of a supervised aerobic exercise program on memory, executive function, functional ability and depression in early AD.” The conclusion drawn from the study suggests that the exercise fitness gains produced not only improved memory performance but reduced hippocampal atrophy. It is still unclear why only some of the participants’ fitness endurance and brain activity improved. Researchers speculate that perhaps a specific exercise program may be more beneficial to a wider group of participants.
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