To reduce Alzheimer’s risk, some forms of exercise better than others, studies show

What forms of exercise are best for reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia?

Researchers are honing in on that question, testing various forms of exercise to see which are best for improving mental functioning and memory.

Several studies reported Sunday at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Vancouver show that aerobic activity – particularly walking – and strength training are valuable for maintaining brain power.

“Currently, the strongest data for lifestyle-based Alzheimer’s risk reduction is for physical activity, yet this data is generally observational and considered preliminary, said William Thies, the Alzheimer’s Association chief medical and scientific officer. “These new intervention studies are taking place over longer periods of time to begin to clarify exactly which types of physical activity are most effective, how much needs to be done, and for how long.”

Related story: Scientist recommends drinking coffee to reduce Alzheimer’s risk

Here is a snapshot of three studies. More information is available on the conference website.

Walking and brain growth

The study: 120 sedentary older adults without dementia were divided into two groups. For a year, one group did sessions of moderate intensity walking, and the other did stretching and toning exercises.

The finding: The walkers showed a 2 percent increase in the size of their hippocampus, compared with the stretching-toning group. The hippocampus is the brain region associated with memory, and it typically shrinks with Alzheimer’s disease. Blood tests showed the walkers also had higher levels of “brain-derived neurotrophic factor.”

The message: “Our findings suggest that the aging brain remains modifiable, and that sedentary older adults can benefit from starting a moderate walking regimen,” said Kirk Erickson, of the University of Pittsburgh.
Weight-lifting boosts memory

The study: Researchers compared the effects of three forms of exercise: resistance training (weight lifting) exercises, aerobics and balance/toning exercises. The participants in the study were women 70 to 80 years old with probable mild cognitive impairment.

The finding: After six months of twice-weekly classes, the weight-lifters performed much better than the others on a test for attention, conflict resolution and a memory task. However, those who did aerobics performed better on a different memory test.

What’s next: “Both exercise groups (aerobics and weight-lifting) improved their memory scores, but on different types of memory. More research is needed to determine the differential effects of these two types of exercise training,” said Lindsay Nagamatsu, a PhD student at the University of British Columbia.
Combination of aerobics, strength training boosts skills

The study: The researchers focused on 47 older adults who showed problems with memory and cognitive impairment. For a year, about half took part in twice-weekly exercise classes that combined aerobics and strength training. The others attended three health education classes.

The finding: Those who exercised improved their performance on a test of cognitive functioning. Their ability to use language “improved significantly” compared with those who did not exercise.

The quote: “Our findings suggest that an exercise intervention can, at least partly, improve or maintain cognitive performance in older adults with amnestic MCI (mild cognitive impairment),” said Hiroyuki Shimada, of the National Center for Geriatrics and Gerontology in Japan.

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