Better than any pill

A very specific kind of exercise may slow Alzheimer's progression.

If you tell me you read my articles, I’ll do anything you say.

As I left a meeting in 2016, a charming lady stopped me to say: “I never miss reading your fitness articles. There’s a free lecture you must hear: The Brain and Exercise.”

So I showed up at a University of California Irvine lecture series with Dr. Laura Baker of the Wake Forest School of Medicine, speaking on Exercise for the Brain: Is It Worth the Sweat?

When Dr. Carl Cotman — founder of the university’s Institute for Memory Impairments and Neurological Disorders (MIND) — introduced Dr. Baker, he almost gave away the answer, but not quite.

At risk for Alzheimer’s

First, Cotman told us that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 150 minutes of exercise weekly, but, unfortunately, people age 20 to 29 get less than 30 minutes, and those in their 80s get a paltry 15.

“Sitting is the new smoking,” he said, describing a 50-year decline in Americans’ active lifestyle.

“Exercise lowers risk for heart disease, cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, improves blood flow, mood and reduces stress,” Cotman said.

But Baker’s study demonstrated even more than those oft-listed physiological benefits. To show the “brain benefit,” she assembled 71 sedentary adults, age 55 to 89, who had been diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment (MCI.)

MCI is described as memory problems greater than normal age-related failure to recall.

Although not all people diagnosed with MCI progress to Alzheimer’s, the progress is tragic for those who do, including a loss of brain cells and severe shrinkage of the brain, marred by the characteristic plaques and tangles of Alzheimer’s.

And, with those losses, comes a greatly diminished ability to care for oneself.

“Not a single drug is effective in stopping or slowing the progressive nature of the disease,” Baker said.

Aerobic activity vs. stretching

But guess what?

Baker’s study found something that is effective. Her study divided a carefully matched group, all of whom had high likelihood of progressing to Alzheimer’s, into two subgroups.

Both exercised 45 to 60 minutes four times a week for six months.

One group received classes in stretching. The other had aerobic training with a personal trainer at a gym.

The aerobic group exercised at 70 to 80 percent of maximum heart rate while the stretching group exercised below
35 percent.

Baker described the results at the end of six months. Participants had spinal taps analyzing their cerebrospinal fluid, indicating the presence of a protein marker for the tangles associated with Alzheimer’s. The protein decreased with aerobic exercise, showing a decline in the tangles.

“No study with medication has been able to decrease the protein marker associated with Alzheimer’s,” Baker said.

In the aerobic exercise group, scans revealed brain volume increases rather than expected further brain shrinkage. The parietal lobe, frontal lobe and hippocampus increased in size, together with “key areas that connect these three.”

Gains in brain weight affect “executive function,” which includes the ability to plan, initiate, multitask and focus.

Participants in the stretching group probably benefited in flexibility and balance, but tangles in their brains increased, brain weight decreased and their dementia progressed.

In the aerobic exercise group, the gains may have been caused by the increased blood flow — to the brain’s memory and processing centers — that accompanies high-intensity activity.

The best prescription

The incidence of Alzheimer’s doubles every five years after 65, so that — after age 85 — about half of us will have Alzheimer’s.

None of us wants to be counted in that number. What we want in our senior years is independence and the continued ability to care for ourselves, all while maintaining as much of the cognitive essence of our personalities as possible.

If a pill would accomplish reversal of dementia’s progress, people would take it.

But we do not have a pill.

Baker prescribes a timed dose of vigorous activity. She has research to show it works. She has evidence that 45 to 60 minutes of aerobic exercise at 70 to 80 percent of maximum heart beat seems to reverse the progressive nature of dementia.

I suspect you agree that in order to hold off the progress of Alzheimer’s, exercise is definitely worth the sweat.

Carrie Luger Slayback is an award-winning, retired teacher and current marathon runner who lives in California.