While we tend to think of Alzheimer’s disease as a condition that only affects the elderly, this isn’t necessarily true. As many as 200,000 Alzheimer’s patients are under the age of 65, indicating this is a form of dementia that can affect anyone at any time. Once an individual does begin to develop the disease, it will progress, or worsen, over time. While there is no cure for the disease at present, researchers are continuously looking for new ways to better manage symptoms of the cognitive illness. The most recent studies indicate that increased physical activity may be one of the best ways to effectively prevent the early onset of Alzheimer’s and manage its symptoms, once it does manifest.
The Relationship Between Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease and Exercise
For people younger than 65 who are at risk of developing early onset Alzheimer’s disease, getting at least 2.5 hours of physical activity a week could be especially important. This small amount of exercise could be enough to stave off the mental decline associated with the early stages of the disease, according to a recent research project.
The St. Louis, Missouri study, which was conducted by a team at the Washington University School of Medicine, released early findings for their ongoing international study. Called the Dominantly Inherited Alzheimer’s Network (DIAN), the project is following families in which at least one member has autosomal dominant Alzheimer’s disease (ADAD). This form of Alzheimer’s disease affects people under the 65 benchmark age and is typically inherited via gene variants.
The findings about the correlation between exercise and ADAD were recently published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia. The 274 subjects, who were studied as a part of the DIAN project, had a median age of 38.4 and each had the abnormally developed ADAD gene. Of these participants, 156 were considered to be highly active, meaning they regularly spent more than the recommended 2.5 hours of exercise per week. The remaining 119 subjects were lower activity levels, failing to reach that minimum requirement for physical activity.
To evaluate the subjects, researchers conducted cognitive functioning tests and checked the biomarkers for the ADAD gene. They found that the highly active participants had decreased ADAD biomarkers and performed better in cognitive testing exercises. Specifically, subjects who engaged in more than 2.5 hours of exercise per week tested significantly higher on standard tests, like the Mini-Mental State Examination and Clinical Dementia Rating Sum of Boxes. These subjects also had noticeably lower tau protein levels in their cerebrospinal fluid, which is a protein necessary for the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
The DIAN researchers selected 2.5 hours of physical exercise as the standard, because it’s the same amount of exercise recommended by fitness and healthcare professionals. Organizations, such as WHO (the World Health Organization) and American College of Sports Medicine, recommend 150 minutes, or 2.5 hours, of moderate to high intensity exercise per week as a means of maintaining optimum health levels. It now seems that the same amount of exercise also benefits cognitive functioning as well.
Aerobic Exercise May also Stave Off Alzheimer’s in Older Patients
Another study, this one conducted by Los Angeles’ University of Southern California, found that aerobic exercise may help prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s disease in older patients, as well. The findings suggest that as many as one-third of cases can be prevented through regular exercise, which means minor lifestyle changes may be enough to stave off the most common form of dementia. In the report, nine lifestyle changes were listed to decrease the risks of developing Alzheimer’s with increased physical activity being one of those recommendations.
For the best results, the report recommended getting the standard WHO-recommended 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. Alternatively, the researchers found that 75 minutes of high-intensity exercise per week could be just as effective. To maximize benefits, aerobic exercise should be supplemented with an equal portion of resistance training.
Another recent study to examine the benefits of exercise on cognitive functioning was conducted at Hartford Hospital in Hartford, Connecticut. Gregory Panza, who works in the hospital’s Department of Cardiology as an exercise physiologist, headed up the study to get a more accurate assessment. The research involved reviewing 19 previous studies of 1,145 elderly patients, who were at risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
In Panza’s research, it was found that concentrating on aerobic exercise provided better cognitive benefits than participating in a regiment of aerobic and strength-training exercises. In fact, a concentration on aerobic exercise provided results that were three times better. In general, it seemed that strength training exercises had little to no effect on the progression of the disease.
The researchers also found that cognitive functioning was strengthened by performing any kind of exercise versus not exercising at all. Those aged 65 or older who engaged in regular physical activity exhibited stronger cognitive functioning than those who didn’t get any exercise. Additionally, seniors with a sedentary lifestyle all showed cognitive decline to some degree or another. This suggests that exercise is important to mental health as much as physical health.
Even if you don’t feel able to get 2.5 hours of physical activity per week in the beginning, getting some exercise is better than doing nothing. Additionally, there are a variety of activities that can help you get the physical activity your body and mind needs. In addition to walking or hiking, you might try bicycling, swimming, tennis, or any other activity that appeals to you. Fitness experts recommend variety, so choosing multiple activities and doing something different each day may be the best approach.
While your goal is to defend against Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, you don’t want to put your physical health at risk in the process. For this reason, it’s important to consult your doctor about any new lifestyle changes you plan to make. He may offer recommendations that will help you start exercising safely. In general, you should start slow and work your way up to a more aggressive workout routine that will benefit your total body health.