MADISON, Wisconsin — Aerobic exercise seems to provide a never-ending list of benefits for overall health and well-being. Does aerobic exercise benefit the brain and mental health? Researchers at the University of Wisconsin have found aerobic exercise to increase brain functions that are normally impaired by Alzheimer’s disease in people that are at risk of developing the disease.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia among older adults. It is an irreversible disease that causes memory loss and a decline in thinking and reasoning abilities. With the number of cases of Alzheimer’s disease expected to rise dramatically over the coming years, it’s crucial that strategies to delay the onset or decrease the severity of the disease are identified.
Previous research has shown aerobic exercise to lessen the severity of changes to the brain and thinking abilities of patients that have already been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers wanted to know if a strict exercise routine would help people at risk for Alzheimer’s disease develop healthier brains and increase their thinking and reasoning abilities.
The study investigated 23 sedentary late-middle-age adults that were either genetically predisposed to or had a family history of Alzheimer’s disease. The adults were placed into two groups: one received information about maintaining an active lifestyle, and the other group was placed on a moderate intensity treadmill training program where they exercised with a personal trainer three times a week for 26 weeks.
Before they began the training program, all participants were screened for a baseline measurement of their cardiorespiratory fitness, daily physical activity, brain glucose metabolism (their brain’s health), and they performed a number of assessments to test their cognitive abilities. These assessments tested global cognition, and more specifically focused on episodic memory (ability to remember specific events) and executive function (mental processes involved with planning, attention, problem-solving and performing multiple things at once).
The measurements were repeated after the training program. Cardiorespiratory fitness increased and sedentary behavior decreased in the training program group compared with the other group. The training program group also scored better on the cognitive assessments that focused on executive function, but not the others.
Lastly, the increase in cardiorespiratory fitness was correlated with increased brain glucose metabolism in an area of the brain associated with Alzheimer’s disease, the posterior cingulate cortex.
“This research shows that a lifestyle behavior – regular aerobic exercise – can potentially enhance brain and cognitive functions that are particularly sensitive to the disease. The findings are especially relevant to individuals who are at a higher risk due to family history or genetic predisposition,” comments lead investigator Ozioma C. Okonkwo, of the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, in a statement.
The research group already plans on running the study again in larger groups to confirm their findings. The lead author on the study, Max Gaitán, concludes: “If these findings are replicated, they would have a tremendous impact on quality of later life, providing individuals with more years of independent living, active engagement with loved ones, and building memories.”
The study is published in Brain Plasticity.