Exercise to Delay Alzheimer’s Disease
There is no doubt that Alzheimer’s is a scary disease. The thought of slowly being robbed of your memory, awareness, and sense of self is simply terrifying. But an even worse possibility is being diagnosed with an early onset form of the condition in which cognitive decline can begin in your 40s or 50s rather than the more typical forms that arise past the age of 65. But on the bright side, we are learning a great deal about the causes of dementia and how to potentially prevent it. In fact, new research suggests that, for one form of early onset Alzheimer’s at least, we might be able to postpone symptoms just by getting enough physical activity.
The study, which took place at the University Hospital of Tubingen in Germany, found that a regular exercise routine may go a long way toward delaying the symptoms of autosomal dominant Alzheimer’s disease (ADAD),1 which tends to strike victims between 30 to 60 years old. These results are based on an investigation that included 275 men and women who were known to have a genetic mutation that can lead to ADAD. Children of a parent with this mutation have a 50 percent chance of inheriting ADAD, and nearly 100 percent of those with ADAD will develop Alzheimer’s disease by the age of 60. There was also a control group of 184 participants who were not ADAD carriers. The average age of the subjects was 38.4, and they were tracked for approximately 15 years.
To assess whether physical activity has an effect on this form of Alzheimer’s disease, the participants were asked to report what kinds of exercise they take part in and for how long. The volunteers also completed a variety of tests designed to evaluate their cognitive abilities and brain function over the course of the research.
The data showed that those who spent at least 150 minutes, or two and a half hours, each week walking, swimming, running, playing tennis, weight training, or partaking in some type of regular workout had a lower risk of cognitive decline over time, suggesting that an adequate amount of exercise can delay the onset of ADAD or slow its progression in those with early symptoms. Specifically, researchers calculated the year in which participants would begin to show signs of Alzheimer’s by looking at the age of onset for participants’ closest family members. Carriers of the ADAD mutation who exercised 150 minutes per week showed improved cognition when they took two tests used to diagnose dementia patients at the age researchers predicted they would develop Alzheimer’s. In contrast, ADAD carriers who exercised fewer than 150 minutes a week demonstrated a decline in cognition when taking the tests. There were no changes in cognition in participants who were non-carriers of ADAD.
What’s more, samples of cerebrospinal fluid were taken, and the subjects who were more physically active had lower levels of important biological markers of Alzheimer’s disease. Concentrations of amyloid-B and tau were measured, as these are proteins known to accumulate in the brains of those with the condition. Fewer of these proteins circulating in the cerebrospinal fluid suggests that perhaps exercise can help prevent them from building up to the point at which they begin to impact brain function.
This study was limited by its small size, as a larger population sample would present greater evidence of the outcome. In addition, the focus was on only autosomal dominant Alzheimer’s disease. So, although the results are very positive for people with that particular variation of the condition, we can’t be certain that it would apply across the board to the vast numbers of people who develop the more common, later onset form of the disease.
That being said, these findings are wonderful news for anyone with a family history or known genetic markers for ADAD, and potentially for everyone at risk for any kind of Alzheimer’s based dementia. It is amazing that something as simple as taking less than 30 minutes a day to work out could have such a huge effect on our brains. Other research has also shown the positive results of exercise on our cognitive abilities, such as a 2011 study at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which showed that a regular walking routine increased the volume of a region of the brain that is essential to memory.
What it really comes down to is putting our health first and getting into the habit of getting off the couch and committing to an exercise session every day. Even on your busiest days, you can likely find 20 or 30 minutes to go for a walk or take a spin on a bike. It will offer you stress relief, help you lose excess weight, lower your risk of a range of diseases, and potentially keep your brain in tip-top shape for years to come.
And one final note: not all dementia is Alzheimer’s related. As much as 30-90% of all diagnosed cases of dementia may be due to the side effects of pharmaceutical drugs prescribed by your doctor. Simply finding another doctor who will work with you to adjust your prescription regimen may make those of forms of “dementia” disappear in a matter of days.
- 1. Muller, Stephan; et al. "Relationship between physical activity, cognition, and Alzheimer pathology in autosomal dominant Alzheimer's disease." Alzheimer's and Dementia. 25 September 2018. Accessed 30 September 2018. https://www.alzheimersanddementia.com/article/S1552-5260(18)33248-5/fulltext.