Even simple exercise can contribute to brain aging

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Even simple exercise can help older Americans with mild memory problems, new research suggests. Doctors have long recommended physical activity to support a healthy brain. But the government-funded study is the longest-running test of whether exercise makes a difference when memory begins to fail — a study conducted amid the pandemic that added isolation to the list of risks for participants’ brain health. The researchers recruited about 300 elderly people with sedentary lifestyles — local memory changes called mild cognitive impairment, or MCI — a condition that is sometimes, but not always, a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease. Half were given aerobic exercise, and the rest were given stretching and balance exercises, which only slightly increased heart rate. Another key component: Participants in both groups were mentored by trainers who worked with them at YMCAs across the country — and when COVID-19 closed gyms, helped them keep moving at home via video calls. A year later, cognitive testing showed that neither group had worsened overall, said lead researcher Laura Baker, a neurologist at Wake Forest School of Medicine. Brain scans also did not show the shrinkage that accompanies worsening memory problems, she said. By comparison, similar MCI patients in another long-term brain health study — but without exercise — experienced significant cognitive decline over the course of a year. These early findings are surprising, and the National Institute on Aging cautioned that tracking non-exercising people in the same study would provide better evidence. But the results suggest that “it’s possible for everyone” — not just older people healthy enough to sweat profusely, said Baker, who presented the data Tuesday at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference. “Exercise should be part of a prevention strategy” for at-risk older adults. Previous research has shown that regular physical activity of any kind can reduce damaging inflammation and increase blood flow to the brain, said Alzheimer’s Association chief scientist Maria Carrillo. The new study is particularly intriguing because the pandemic has reached the halfway mark, leaving already vulnerable seniors socially isolated — something that has long been known to increase the risk of memory problems, Carrillo said. It’s a frustrating time for dementia research. Doctors hesitate to prescribe an expensive new drug called Aduhelm, which was supposed to be the first to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease – but it is not yet clear whether it actually helps patients Researchers last month reported another drug that works in a similar way – by targeting amyloid plaques , which are a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease — failed in a key study. While amyloid clearly plays a role, it’s important that drugmakers increasingly target many of the other factors that can lead to dementia, Carrillo said, because for effective treatment or prevention, a combination of individual strategies is likely to be required. One example of the new approach is that sometimes in dementia, the brain has trouble processing sugars and fats in the blood for the energy it needs, John Didsbury of T3D Therapeutics said at the Alzheimer’s meeting. His company is testing a pill that aims to boost that metabolism, with results expected next year. Meanwhile, there is a growing need to determine whether steps people can take today — such as exercise — can provide at least some protection. How much and what kind of exercise? In Baker’s study, older adults were required to move for 30 to 45 minutes four times a week, whether it was intense work on a treadmill or stretching exercises. That’s a lot to ask of someone who leads a sedentary lifestyle, but Baker said MCI’s effects on the brain make it even more difficult for people to plan and stick to new activities. Hence the social stimulation, which she says each participant spent more than 100 hours on. Baker suspects that the sheer volume may explain why even simple stretching added apparent benefits. Participants were required to exercise without formal support for an additional six months, data that Baker has yet to analyze. “We wouldn’t have done the exercise on our own,” said retired agricultural researcher Doug Maxwell of Verona, Wis., who joined the study with his wife. The duo, both 81, were both scheduled for stretching sessions. After that, they felt so good that when the study ended, they bought electric bikes in the hope of being even more active – which Maxwell admitted was hard to keep up with. Next: Baker is leading an even larger study of older adults to see if adding exercise to other health-promoting steps, such as a heart-healthy diet, brain games and social stimulation, can work together to reduce the risk of dementia.___Associated Press Department of Health of Health and Science is supported by the Department of Science Education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. AP is solely responsible for all content.

Even simple exercise can help older Americans with mild memory problems, new research suggests.

Doctors have long advised physical activity to maintain a healthy brain. But the government-funded study is the longest-running test of whether exercise makes a difference when memory begins to fail — a study conducted amid the pandemic that added isolation to the list of risks to participants’ brain health.

The researchers recruited about 300 sedentary older adults with hard-to-detect memory changes called mild cognitive impairment, or MCI, a condition that is sometimes, but not always, a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease. Half were prescribed aerobic exercises, and the rest – stretching and balance, which only slightly increased the heart rate.

Another key component: Participants in both groups were showered with attention from trainers who worked with them at YMCAs across the country — and when COVID-19 closed gyms, helped them keep moving at home via video calls.

A year later, cognitive testing showed that overall neither group had gotten worse, said lead researcher Laura Baker, a neurologist at Wake Forest School of Medicine. Nor did brain scans show the shrinkage that accompanies worsening memory problems, she said.

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

These early findings are surprising, and the National Institute on Aging cautioned that tracking non-exercisers in the same study would provide better evidence.

But the results show that “it’s possible for everyone” — not just for older people healthy enough to sweat profusely, said Baker, who presented the data Tuesday at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference. “Exercise should be part of prevention strategies” for at-risk older adults.

Previous research has shown that regular physical activity of any kind can reduce destructive inflammation and increase blood flow to the brain, said Alzheimer’s Association chief scientist Maria Carrillo.

But the new study is particularly intriguing because the pandemic has reached the halfway mark, leaving already vulnerable seniors socially isolated — something that has long been known to increase the risk of memory problems, Carrillo said.

It’s a frustrating time for dementia research. Doctors are hesitant to prescribe an expensive new drug called Aduhelm, which was supposed to be the first to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, but it is not yet clear whether it actually helps patients. Another drug that works similarly — by targeting the amyloid plaques that are a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease — failed in a key trial, researchers reported last month.

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

One example of the new approach: Sometimes in dementia, the brain has trouble processing blood sugar and fat for the energy it needs, John Didsbury of T3D Therapeutics said at the Alzheimer’s meeting. His company is testing pills aimed at boosting metabolism, with results expected next year.

Meanwhile, there is a growing need to determine whether steps people can take today — such as exercise — may provide some protection.

How much and what exercises? In Baker’s study, older adults were required to move for 30 to 45 minutes four times a week, whether it was intense work on a treadmill or stretching exercises. That’s a lot to ask of someone who leads a sedentary lifestyle, but Baker said MCI’s effects on the brain make it even harder for people to plan and stick to new activities.

Hence the social stimulation she attributed to each participant completing more than 100 hours of exercise. Baker suspects that the sheer volume may explain why even simple stretching added apparent benefits. Participants were required to exercise without formal support for an additional six months, data that Baker has not yet analyzed.

“We wouldn’t have done it on our own,” said retired agricultural researcher Doug Maxwell of Verona, Wis., who joined the study with his wife.

The duo, both 81, were both scheduled for stretching classes. After that, they felt so good that when the study ended, they bought electric bikes in hopes of getting even more active — an effort Maxwell admitted was difficult to accomplish.

Next: Baker is leading an even larger study of older adults to see if adding exercise to other healthy activities, such as a heart-healthy diet, brain games and social stimulation, can together reduce the risk of dementia.

___

The Associated Press Department of Health and Science receives support from the Department of Science Education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. AP is solely responsible for all content.

Even simple exercise can contribute to brain aging

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