Dementia: Doing this activity four or five times a week may slow down symptoms

Dementia is a syndrome (a group of related symptoms) associated with an ongoing decline of brain functioning. As the disease progresses, the symptoms tend to worsen – a person’s judgement and understanding can become increasingly impaired. Although the condition cannot be fully prevented, evidence suggests measures can be taken to slow down symptoms. A new study reveals the extent to which exercise may play a role in delaying the disease.

According to the study, published in The Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, doing 30 minutes of physical activity over four or five times a week can delay brain deterioration.

A team from the University of Texas (UT) Southwestern Medical Centre divided a group of 70 participants, all over 55, into two groups.

One did only flexibility training while the other did aerobic exercise – at least one 30 minute workout four or five times each week.

For the second group, the spread of the toxic amyloid plaque blamed for killing neurons in the brains of dementia patients was slowed down.

They also saw slightly less shrinkage in their hippocampi – parts of the brain responsible for memory and learning which deteriorates in Alzheimer’s sufferers.

Right now doctors can’t prescribe anything

Dr Rong Zhang, study lead

While both groups had similar results when their memories and problem solving skills were tested, the findings have given doctors hope that workouts could at least slow down the effects of dementia if caught early.

Dr Rong Zhang, who led the study, said: “What are you supposed to do if you have amyloid clumping together in the brain? Right now doctors can’t prescribe anything.

“If these findings can be replicated in a larger trial, then maybe one day doctors will be telling high-risk patients to start an exercise plan. In fact, there’s no harm in doing so now

“It’s interesting that the brains of participants with amyloid responded more to the aerobic exercise than the others.

“Although the interventions didn’t stop the hippocampus from getting smaller, even slowing down the rate of atrophy through exercise could be an exciting revelation.”

However, Dr Zhang adds more research is needed to see how, or if, the reduced shrinking and plaque can help hold back dementia.

Dr Zhang’s findings follow a growing body evidence linking exercise to a reducing the risk of brain decline in later life.

As reported by Alzheimer’s UK, a literature review found 27 studies looking at the effect of physical activity on brain function in people over 60 years of age.

In 26 of the studies there was a clear link between physical activity levels and cognitive performance, suggesting that exercise might be an effective way to reduce cognitive decline in later life.

Echoing the findings of this new study, aerobic exercise has also been shown to affect the brains of healthy older people.

In a modest-sized controlled trial, one year of aerobic exercise resulted in a small increase in the size of the hippocampus (the key brain area involved in memory), which was the equivalent of reversing one to two years of age-related shrinkage.

What is aerobic exercise?

Aerobic exercise is any type of activity that gets the cardiovascular system working.

It can include activities like brisk walking, swimming, running, or cycling.

Interestingly, Alzheimer’s UK also reported that one study found that the risk of Alzheimer’s disease can be reduced by daily physical tasks such as cooking and washing up.

It may come as a suprise that a certain lifestyle factor may also reduce the risk of developing dementia. 

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