Remember to exercise, exercise to remember

Studies show physical activity decreases risk of Alzheimer

Exercise is touted as an integral part of fitness, health and maintaining a trim physique, but what if it also could benefit the brain? Recent research suggests that physical activity could be an effective treatment for Alzheimer's disease.

According to the Alzheimer's Association, 5.3 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer's disease, and it is now the seventh leading cause of death. No cure for Alzheimer's exists right now. Regular exercise, however, has been shown to improve cognitive performance in older adults, and researchers say regular exercise is better than supplements and prescription drugs in treating the advance of Alzheimer's.

Researchers from the University of Washington conducted a six-month clinical trial with 33 participants, 17 of whom were women. All showed early signs of Alzheimer's disease and were between the ages of 55 and 85.

The experiment participants underwent a six-month intensive aerobic training program, spending 45 minutes to an hour four times each week on a stationary bicycle or treadmill. At the end of the six months, the participants saw improvement in mental agility, while the control group showed no improvement. Researchers are planning further studies to conduct larger and longer duration trials, following volunteers for years instead of months, for more conclusive data as to whether exercise can prevent full-blown cases of Alzheimer's.

Exactly how Alzheimer's affects memory is not understood fully, but researchers theorize that protein fragments, known as amyloid plaques, begin to cluster in the brain, causing larger, more tangled strands of other proteins to appear, which lead to symptoms of dementia often associated with Alzheimer's.

But how does exercise stop this from occurring? Researchers Allison Bonner and Sandra O'Brien Cousins of the University of Alberta say exercise increases activity in the cortex of the brain, boosts the immune system and may "moderate the arteriosclerotic disease process of the brain," Bonner and Cousins said in a 1996 paper published in Activities, Adaptation & Aging.

Other similar studies have been conducted, where researchers have measured the health benefits of resistance training for women between the ages of 65 and 75 who are most at risk for developing Alzheimer's. In one study, after one year of training, women who had completed the training showed better scores on mental acuity and conflict resolution tests than those who didn't, according to an article, "Regular Exercise and Resistance Training Are Good for the Brain," published on alzinfo.org.

Jeffrey Kaye, director of Layton Aging and Alzheimer's Disease Center at Oregon Health and Science University, told The Oregonian, "The challenge now is to understand, at a scientific level, what elements of activity really do enhance brain function, and what level, what dose of activity is needed."

Third-year College student Haley Carpenter has a family with a history of Alzheimer's disease, which can be passed down from generation to generation.

"It's been hard watching a family member struggle with dementia and the progression of Alzheimer's," she said.

But Carpenter said she remains optimistic that progress is being made in Alzheimer's research, especially after learning about the benefits of exercise in her Contemporary Health Issues class.\n"I already try to remain as active and healthy as possible and am glad to see my grandparents have incorporated daily activities such as biking and doing some weight training," she said. "I do think adding more weight-bearing exercises like walking and running - if possible - could be beneficial as well"

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