New research suggests moderate exercise may be the best method for combatting cognitive decline in those at risk for Alzheimer’s disease, through improving the efficiency of brain activity linked to memory.
Researchers from the University of Maryland School of Public Health conducted a study on 17 participants with mild cognitive impairment—a diagnosis that signals greater risk for Alzheimer’s—and recently published the results in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.
Two groups of physically inactive older adults between the ages of 60-88 began a 12-week exercise program that included regular walking on a treadmill, with guidance from a personal trainer. One group of participants had MCI, while the other group had healthy brain function.
The levels of exercise used for the study are in line with physical activity levels recommended for older adults, consisting of moderate intensity exercise several days a week totaling about 150 minutes.
Not only did both groups improve their cardiovascular fitness but about 10% by the end of the program, they also improved their memory performance and demonstrated enhanced neural efficiency while engaged in memory retrieval takes.
“We found that after 12 weeks of being on a moderate exercise program, study participants improved their neural efficiency—basically they were using fewer neural resources to perform the same memory task,” said Dr. J. Carson Smith, assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health’s Department of Kinesiology. “No study has shown that a drug can do what we showed is possible with exercise.”
Tests and imaging to measure participants’ brain activation were conducted before and after the exercise program. Brain scans taken after participants completed the intervention showed a decrease in the intensity of brain activation in 11 brain regions while correctly identifying famous names, such as Frank Sinatra or other celebrities they’d be familiar with.
The brain regions that showed improved efficiency were the same areas of the brain that lead to Alzheimer’s diagnoses, including the precuneus region, which involves episodic memory, and the temporal lobe.
“People with MCI are on a very sharp decline in their memory function,” Dr. Smith said, “so being able to improve their recall is a very big step in the right direction.”
Written by Alyssa Gerace