New research suggests that even simple exercise may be enough to help older adults with memory problems.
Doctors have long said that physical activity helps keep your brain healthy. But the US government-funded study is based on the longest running trials to determine if physical exercise has any effect once memory begins to fail. The study was conducted amid a pandemic that added isolation to the participants’ mental health risk list.
The researchers recruited about 300 sedentary older adults with a hard-to-diagnose memory problem called mild cognitive impairment, which is sometimes, but not always, a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease. Half of them were assigned aerobic exercises and the rest were assigned stretching and balancing movements that barely raise the heart rate.
Another important element is that participants in both groups received attention from coaches who worked with them at YMCA gyms across the country. And when gyms were closed due to COVID-19, they helped her keep moving around the house through video calls.
At the end of the year, cognitive tests revealed that neither group had deteriorated, said lead researcher Laura Becker, a neurologist at Wake Forest School of Medicine. Brain scans did not show the shrinkage that accompanies worsening memory problems.
In comparison, patients with mild cognitive impairment in another long-term mental health study — but without exercise — experienced significant cognitive decline a year later.
These initial results are surprising, and the National Institute on Aging cautioned that the evidence would have been stronger if non-exercisers had been studied in the same test.
Becker, who presented the data Tuesday at the Alzheimer’s Society’s international conference, said the findings suggest “this is possible for everyone,” not just older adults who are healthy enough to break a sweat. “Exercise should be part of the preventive strategy” for the elderly at risk.
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