Can Aerobic Exercise Improve Cognitive Function and Decrease Alzheimer's Disease Risk?

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

Moderate to vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise may benefit adults with mild cognitive impairment, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Finding ways to help people with mild cognition is important to potentially combat rising cases of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

“Aerobic exercise is very important for improving both vascular function and brain function,” said Rong Zhang, PhD, a professor of neurology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, a research scientist at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, and the study’s principal investigator. “The brain is a unique organ. It needs constant blood flow and oxygen supply.”

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Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia are among the nation’s biggest public health threats.

While this study didn’t look at combating Alzheimer’s disease directly, it looked at helping people with mild cognitive impairment. Mild cognitive impairment has been shown to increase the risk of developing dementia caused by Alzheimer’s disease or other neurological conditions.

Experts have been looking for ways to prevent all forms of dementia, including Alzheimer’s. Currently, there is no cure.

Research into this subject has become more pressing as America’s population is aging rapidly. More than 10,000 people turn 65 years old each day.

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One in three seniors dies from Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia, and it kills more people than breast and prostate cancers combined. More than 6 million people over the age of 65 in the United States live with Alzheimer’s disease, a figure that is expected to balloon to almost 13 million by 2050, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

During the pandemic, Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia-related deaths rose 16 percent.

What the study found

For this study, researchers observed 37 people ages 55 to 80 with mild cognitive impairment. These adults were observed over a 12-month period.

At the beginning of the study, the subjects participated in three brisk walking exercise sessions each week for 25 to 30 minutes. Beginning in week 11, they exercised 4 times a week, walking briskly uphill for 30 to 35 minutes per session. After week 26, exercise sessions increased to 4 to 5 times a week for 30 to 40 minutes.

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Researchers found that vigorous exercise was associated with a host of benefits for people with mild cognitive impairment. They not only improved their cerebral blood flow regulation and cardiorespiratory fitness, but they also their memory and executive function.

Exercise and dementia risk

“While we don’t have any effective treatment yet for Alzheimer’s yet, prevention is the most important key” at this time, said Tomoto. “We are focused on mild cognitive dysfunction. There is some research that suggests that if you do intervention, you could have some hope in reducing Alzheimer’s. That’s why we focused on this population. If you could exercise, it could improve vascular function and may lead to cognitive improvement.”

Dr. Santosh Kesari, PhD, a neurologist, neuroscientist, and neuro-oncologist, said there has been some evidence suggesting a connection between exercise and reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s.

“It’s an interesting study,” said Kesari, director of neuro-oncology at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. “It validates the fact that exercise can improve cardiovascular and brain function in a fairly short period of time. It’s not revolutionary, but this is a good study in the sense that it documents this in a different way.”

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Benjamin Bikman, PhD, an associate professor of cell biology and physiology at Brigham Young University, added that research around Alzheimer’s disease is changing, even examining if Alzheimer’s disease is a metabolic disorder affected by insulin.

“The brain is an energy hog, with among the highest metabolic demands of any tissue in the body,” Bikman explained. “In order for the brain to get all the energy it needs, the hormone insulin must be able to do its job. Insulin, among many roles, opens glucose doors into parts of the brain involved in memory and learning, helping those brain cells get all the glucose they need to function.”

He noted that exercise helps regulate insulin.

“Exercise has many beneficial effects, but among the most relevant with Alzheimer’s disease is that it drastically improves insulin sensitivity, allowing insulin to work better in the body and allow more glucose to feed the hungry brain,” Bikman explained. “While we should certainly [do] mental exercises to keep our brain sharp, such as studying a new language and learning a new instrument, this shouldn’t replace whole-body exercise, which helps the myriad metabolic functions in the body, including the brain, run optimally.”

Kesari said the potential implications of this study and others like it are massive.

“Simply exercising could improve your brain function in the long run, and it’s good for you at the end of the day. The health economic implications are huge. It could reduce severe dementia in the long run and reduce healthcare costs.”

Read more on: alzheimers


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