As reported this week at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference, the cost of care for individuals with Alzheimer's in the United States will exceed $1 trillion by 2050. Researchers are working constantly to determine how we can avert this crisis- not only of cost, but of lost memories and lives.
In the first study, 120 sedentary older adults without dementia were randomly assigned to either a walking group or a stretching/toning group. After one year, those in the walking group showed a 2% increase in the size of their hippocampus compared to the stretching group. The hippocampus is a part of the brain that controls memories, and it's one of the earlier places that shrinks and deteriorates in Alzheimer's. This study demonstrates that the brain of older adults can continue to grow and improve.
In the second study, 86 adults with mild cognitive impairment (a condition where the risk for developing Alzheimer's is high) were randomly assigned to one of three groups:
- Resistance/Weight Training
- Balance & Tone
The results? The weight training group showed a significant improvement in selective attention (as measured by the Stroop Test), conflict resolution and memory. The participants in this group also demonstrated actual improvements in three areas of their brains.
The walking group did show an increase in the scores on one different memory task called the Rey Auditory Visual Learning Test, but did not demonstrate any other improvements or any physical changes in the brain. The balance and toning group demonstrated no improvements.
The researchers concluded that weight-training for those already diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment was an effective way not just to stave off Alzheimer's, but even to improve the cognitive function and physical health of the brain.
A third study compared how the initial level of cognitive functioning affected the results after participants were assigned to either a weight training group or a balance/toning group. According to the Alzheimer's Association International Conference, the results demonstrated that:
- The most improvement came from those who were in the resistance training group and had higher cognitive functioning at the beginning of the study.
- For participants with lower cognitive functioning at the beginning of the study, the effects of weight training and balance/tone exercises were about equal.
- Overall, participants in the balance/tone exercise group were the least likely to demonstrate improvement and the most likely to decline.
What are they saying, in summary? Prevention appears most effective while the brain is healthy, and early detection and exercise (specifically resistance/weight training) is key to maintaining cognitive functioning.
In the fourth study, 47 older adults between the ages of 65 and 93, all of whom had a diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment, were split between a physical exercise group and a control group which received three educational classes on health over the course of 12 months. The exercise group's curriculum consisted of aerobic exercise, muscle strength training, and postural balance retraining.
The results in this study demonstrated a clear improvement in both memory and in the ability to use language for participants in the exercise group.
I found these studies both encouraging and fascinating, especially as they refer to the weight resistance training. The fact that participants who were already diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment experienced an improvement in cognitive functioning and actual growth in three separate areas in their brains is exciting.
In light of these studies, you may want to read more on how to reduce the risk of Alzheimer's through exercise. I've also added information about what the Stroop Test is and how it's used to screen for early Alzheimer's disease.
Please feel free to share any thoughts or experiences related to exercise and dementia.