3 Studies Show Clear Benefits of Physical Exercise in Dementia

Benefits of Physical Exercise. Ariel Skelley Blend Images/ Getty Images

A group of studies conducted recently and presented at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference have concluded that physical exercise appears beneficial after dementia is already present, in addition to repeated correlations with a decreased risk of developing dementia.

Here's a summary of the three studies outlined at the conference:

1) Researchers in Denmark conducted a study which involved 200 participants with mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease. These participants were randomly assigned to either a 16-week aerobic exercise group or a control group which received regular care.

The primary goal of this study was to see if the participants’ performance on the Symbol Digit Modalities Test (a test that assesses cognitive ability) improved after the exercise group concluded. The secondary goal was to determine if the behavior and psychological symptoms of the participants improved following the experimental conditions of the exercise group.

The results?

While the first goal of a significant difference in scores on the Symbol Digit Modalities Test wasn’t met, mental speed and attention did improve in those who participated in at least 80% of the exercise sessions at a level where their heart rate was at least 70% of their maximum recommended heart rate.

There was also a significant decrease in the participants’ psychiatric symptoms such as anxiety, depression and irritability, meeting the secondary goal of the study.

As an added benefit, physical fitness levels also improved in those who were in the aerobic exercise group.

2) The second study was conducted at Wake Forest Baptist University and involved 65 adults with mild cognitive impairment who generally were sedentary.

(Persons with mild cognitive impairment have a high risk of developing dementia.)

The researchers randomly divided up the participants into two groups: an aerobic exercise group and a stretching group. For six months, the aerobic exercise group exercised 45-60 minutes for four times a week with an instructor. Their most common exercise was walking or jogging on a treadmill.

The stretching group also met regularly and stretched at a lower cardio level—about 35% of their maximum recommended cardiac level vs. approximately 70% for the aerobic fitness group.

The results, as measured by blood tests, cerebrospinal fluid levels, MRIs and cognitive tests of verbal recall and executive functioning, showed a reduced level of tau in the cerebrospinal fluid. (An excess of tau protein in the brain is considered one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease.)

Blood flow increased in the participants’ brains in the areas corresponding with memory and processing, and scores on tests that measure executive functioning also improved significantly.

3) A six-month study with 71 participants was conducted in Canada to evaluate if aerobic exercise had any benefit for people with mild vascular cognitive impairment. Out of 71 participants, 62 of them completed the program which consisted of either an hour of aerobic exercise three times a week directed by an instructor or typical care plus a monthly educational seminar on nutrition.

The participants were administered the ADAS-Cog prior to beginning the research and after completing the program. The end results after the intervention showed that those who were part of the aerobic exercise group demonstrated a significant improvement in their scores on the ADAS-Cog, specifically in the area of memory and attention. Brain scans also showed improved efficiency after the aerobic exercise.

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