Even simple exercise can help prevent brain aging, research suggests

High school students run into the sunset as they train for the track and field season in February. 28, in Shawnee, Kan. New research shows that simple exercises can help with memory problems. Although physical exercise helps keep the brain healthy, it’s unclear how much it helps with memory loss. (Charlie Riedel, Associated Press)

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WASHINGTON – New research shows that even simple exercise can help older Americans with mild memory problems.

Doctors have long recommended physical exercise to help keep the brain fit. But the government-sponsored study marks the longest-ever test of whether exercise makes a difference when memory starts to fade — a study conducted during the pandemic that added isolation to a list of risks to participants’ brain health.

Researchers looked at nearly 300 sedentary older adults with hard-to-accept memory changes called cognitive impairment, or MCI — which are sometimes, but not always, precursors to Alzheimer’s. Half were assigned to aerobic exercise and the others to stretching-balance movements, which only slightly increased heart rate.

Another key component: Participants in both groups were mentored by trainers who work at YMCAs across the country — and helped them stay active at home via video calls when COVID-19 closed gyms.

A year later, cognitive testing showed deterioration in both groups, said Laura Baker, a neuroscientist at Wake Forest School of Medicine. Brain scans did not show shrinkage associated with memory loss, he said.

By comparison, in another long-term study of brain health, similar MCI patients — but without exercise — experienced significant cognitive decline over the course of a year.

These initial findings are surprising, and the National Institute on Aging cautioned that better evidence would have been to follow non-exercisers in the same study.

Baker, who presented the data at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference on Tuesday, said the results “could do it for everyone” — not just healthy people who sweat. “Exercise should be part of prevention strategies” for at-risk older adults.

Maria Carrillo, chief scientific officer at the Alzheimer’s Association, said previous studies have found that regular physical activity of any kind can reduce harmful inflammation and increase blood flow to the brain.

But the new study is particularly interesting because the pandemic has left the frail elderly socially isolated — which increases people’s risk of memory problems, Carrillo said.

It’s a depressing time for dementia research. Doctors are hesitant to prescribe Adukhelm, the first new drug to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s, but it is not yet clear whether it will actually help patients. Last month, researchers reported that another drug that works similarly by targeting amyloid plaques, a hallmark of Alzheimer’s, failed in a pivotal study.

While amyloid clearly plays a role, it’s important that drugmakers pay more attention to the many other factors that can lead to dementia, Carrillo said, because effective treatment or prevention will require a combination of tailored strategies.

One example of the new approach: Sometimes in dementia, the brain has trouble processing blood sugar and fat into the energy it needs, John Didsbury of T3D Therapeutics said at the Alzheimer’s meeting. His company is testing a pill aimed at revitalizing the metabolism and expects to see results next year.

At the same time, it remains to be seen whether steps people can take today, such as exercise, may offer at least some protection.

How much and what kind of exercise? In Baker’s study, seniors were required to exercise for 30 to 45 minutes four times a week, whether it was hard turns on a treadmill or stretching exercises. That’s a big question for any sedentary person, but Baker says the effects of MCI on the brain make it even harder for people to plan and stick to new activities.

So the social incentive — he says — led each participant to exercise more than 100 hours a year. Baker suspects that high volume may explain why even simple stretches produce visible benefits.

“We wouldn’t have done the exercise on our own,” said Doug Maxwell, a retired agricultural researcher from Verona, Wisconsin, who participated in the study with his wife.

Both 81 years old, both were assigned to stretching classes. Later, they felt so good that after the study was over, they bought electric bikes in hopes of getting more active—attempts Maxwell admits.

Next: Baker is conducting a larger study of older adults to see if adding exercise to other non-harmful steps like a heart-healthy diet, brain games and social stimulation can reduce the risk of dementia.

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