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Staying physically active could help those at risk of Alzheimer's

Researchers say exercise is beneficial for brain function

Photo (c) Stuart Miles - Fotolia
A new study conducted by researchers from UT Southwestern Medical Center suggests that exercise could help those who are at an increased risk of Alzheimer’s. 

The researchers found that engaging in regular physical activity for one year slowed brain degeneration for patients with amyloid beta build-up in their brains. Amyloid beta is an amino acid that’s closely linked with Alzheimer’s. 

“What are you supposed to do if you have amyloid clumping together in the brain?” said researcher Dr. Rong Zhang. “Right now doctors can’t prescribe anything. If these findings can be replicated in a larger trial, then maybe one day doctors will be telling high-risk patients to start an exercise plan. In fact, there’s no harm in doing so now.” 

Brain benefits of exercise

The researchers had 70 participants involved in the study, all over the age of 55. None of the participants exercised regularly when the study began, and they all were at a similar risk of developing Alzheimer’s. 

The participants were divided into two groups: those who practiced flexibility training four times per week and those who engaged in aerobic exercise four times per week. Participants exercised for 30 minutes per day over the course of one year. 

When the study was over, the researchers didn’t see any significant changes in the participants’ memory function, meaning that the exercise -- or lack thereof -- had no impact on their ability to remember things. However, the study did reveal one major difference between the two exercise groups. 

As dementia and Alzheimer’s progress, physicians typically see the hippocampus -- a part of the brain known for holding memories -- degenerate over time. However, the researchers found that degeneration was reduced for those who engaged in aerobic exercise throughout the course of the study. 

“Although the interventions didn’t stop the hippocampus from getting smaller, even slowing down the rate of atrophy through exercise could be an exciting revelation,” said Dr. Zhang, who plans to expand on these results to see if effective courses of treatment can be created for patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia. 

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