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Alzheimer's Risk May Be Delayed with Exercise

Breaking News - January 2006 - Week 3

(Jan 18, 2006)

Healthcare in  the News

-- Seniors who engage in some form of minimal exercise at least three days a week can cut their risk of developing Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia by as much as 30 percent to 40 percent, a new study reveals.

Picture of a man and woman canoeing

Even better, the findings apply to everyone in their later years, not just those already in great physical shape, according to a report in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

The study was funded by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), a component of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

The descriptive study did not demonstrate directly that exercise reduces risk of dementia, but it joins a growing body of observational research pointing to an association between exercise and cognitive decline, say scientists at the NIA, NIH, and HHS.

Regular Exercise Is Key

"Regular exercise at least three times a week could delay the onset and reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer's, and the more frail a person is, the more he or she is gong to benefit from exercise," says lead author Dr. Eric B. Larson, director of the Group Health Cooperative's Center for Health Studies in Seattle.

"So use it even after you start to lose it - that's the banner headline," he adds.

"There's a tendency to sit down and do nothing when you start to lose function, but the opposite is probably exactly what's in order if you want to stave off Alzheimer's disease," Dr. Larson says.

Between 1994 and 2003, Larson and his team assessed the health, physical, and mental function, and lifestyle characteristics of 1,740 men and women over the age of 65.

All the study participants were members of a Seattle-based health-maintenance organization. None had been diagnosed with dementia or were living in a nursing home at the start of the study.

Every two years, the researchers used examinations and in-person interviews to evaluate participants' weekly exercise routines; physical abilities such as walking, standing, balancing, and gripping; memory, attentiveness, and concentration skills; and smoking, drinking and dietary supplement habits.

They noted that 107 participants went on to develop Alzheimer's within six years of the study. Another 51 participants developed other forms of dementia, while 276 participants died during the course of the study.

Those who had been engaging in regular exercise when the study began - defined as 15 minutes of physical activity at least three days a week - had a 32 percent lower risk of developing dementia than those exercising less than three days a week.

Study limitations include self-reported exercise frequency and a relatively high proportion of regular exercisers at the baseline measurement.

Other Factors Involved, Say Experts

Exercise might not eliminate the chance of developing Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia altogether, the researchers note. However, physical activity may help delay dementia onset by a number of years, they say.

Walking, hiking, bicycling, aerobics, calisthenics, swimming, water aerobics, weight training, and stretching were all considered valid exercise activities.

However, the authors did not measure exercise intensity, and physically taxing habits that had been conducted at the workplace or while completing non-leisure chores were also not assessed.

Other factors, such as educational achievement, alcohol consumption, smoking, and dietary supplement use did not affect dementia risk, the study found.

Exercise Beneficial Even in Later Stages of Dementia

Seniors who are in the worst physical shape have perhaps the most to gain from routine activity.

According to the study, regular exercisers who had been evaluated as among the most physically weak at the start of the study experienced even more of a reduction in dementia risk than their more physically fit peers.

Dr. Larson and his colleagues call for future studies to explore the intensity and duration of exercise that would best improve circulation and oxygen delivery while reducing brain cell loss - all of which they suspect accounts for the resulting drop in dementia risk.

"Alzheimer's disease is one of the conditions that people fear the most about getting old," says Dr. Larson. "Most people would like to live longer if they don't get Alzheimer's disease. And from the general public health point of view, knowing that this benefit exists might motivate people to make the behavior change to exercise regularly."

"This is a kind of underused treatment, if you will -- and it has many benefits beyond preventing Alzheimer's disease," adds Dr. Larson.

Greg M. Cole, Ph.D., a neuroscientist with the greater Los Angeles VA Healthcare System and the associate director of the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, expresses great enthusiasm for the study.

"I've been waiting for somebody to determine whether or not exercise can affect the onset of Alzheimer's," he says. "It's critically important, and it fits in well with what we already know."

"Reducing cholesterol with statins, reducing high-saturated fat intake, increasing mega-fatty acid intake, lowering blood pressure - controlling all those factors seems to reduce our risk for Alzheimer's," Dr. Cole adds.

Dr. Cole continues, "And exercise now appears to be another one of those things. And it's really doable. People can apply it directly. So this is really great."

Always consult your physician for more information.

For more information on health and wellness, please visit health information modules on this Web site.


More About Alzheimer's

Alzheimer's disease is a progressive, neurodegenerative disease that occurs when nerve cells in the brain die.

Alzheimer's disease often results in the following:

  • impaired memory, thinking, and behavior
  • confusion
  • restlessness
  • personality and behavior changes
  • impaired judgment
  • impaired communication
  • inability to follow directions
  • language deterioration
  • impaired thought processes that involve visual and spatial awareness
  • emotional apathy

With Alzheimer's disease, motor function is often preserved.

Alzheimer's disease is distinguished from other forms of dementia by characteristic changes in the brain that are visible only upon microscopic examination during autopsy.

Brains affected by Alzheimer's disease often show presence of the following:

  • fiber tangles within nerve cells (neurofibrillary tangles)
  • clusters of degenerating nerve endings (neuritic plaques)

Another characteristic of Alzheimer's disease is the reduced production of certain brain chemicals necessary for communication between nerve cells, especially acetylcholine, as well as norepinephrine, serotonin, and soma-to statin.

What causes Alzheimer's?

Although intense investigation has been underway for many years, the causes of Alzheimer's disease are not entirely known.

Suspected causes often include the following:

  • age and family history
  • certain genes
  • abnormal protein deposits in the brain
  • other risk and environmental factors
  • immune system problems

According to the Alzheimer's Association, the following are the most common symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • memory loss that affects job skills
  • difficulty performing familiar tasks
  • problems with language
  • disorientation to time and place
  • poor or decreased judgment
  • problems with abstract thinking
  • misplacing things
  • changes in mood or behavior
  • changes in personality
  • loss of initiative

The symptoms of Alzheimer's disease may resemble other medical conditions or problems.

Always consult your physician for a diagnosis.


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