Encouraging research being shared at the International Conference on Alzheimer’s Disease in Honolulu this week shows that exercise may be a powerful antidote to cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s and other dementias.
Physical activity has long been related to cognitive decline, through several long-term epidemiological studies, but up until now, published research has not been consistent, and several large studies failed to show an association. Most of the studies followed participants for fewer than six years and/or lacked substantial follow-up. In fact, a panel convened by the National Institutes of Health recently reported that no proof exists for ways of preventing dementia.
Researchers have yearned for a long-term study of people within the age brackets at higher risk for developing Alzheimer’s, in order to show a true relationship between exercise and cognitive decline. The Framingham Study, a population-based study that has followed participants residing in the town of Framingham, Massachusetts since 1948 for cardiovascular risk factors, is one such study, and it is now also tracking cognitive performance.
In work presented in Honolulu, Dr. Zaldy Tan of Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, and colleagues, estimated the levels of 24-hour physical activity of more than 1,200 elderly participants from the Framingham Study. They included 742 females, within five years of age 76 in 1986 and 1987, and followed them for the development of dementia. They divided the participants into five groups based on level of physical activity, from lowest (Q1) to highest (Q5).
Over two decades of follow-up, 242 of the women developed dementia, including 193 with Alzheimer’s. The researchers found that participants who performed moderate to heavy levels of physical activity had about a 40 percent lower risk of developing any type of dementia. Further, people who reported the lowest levels of physical activity were 45 percent more likely to develop any type of dementia compared to those who reported higher levels of activity.
“This is the first study to follow a large group of individuals for this long a period of time,” Tan says in a news release. “It suggests that lowering the risk for dementia may be one additional benefit of maintaining at least moderate physical activity, even into the eighth decade of life.”
If you couldn’t make it to Honolulu, (darn! me neither!) you can still stay up-to-date with what is happeneing at the International Conference on Alzheimer’s Disease by reading the daily news releases. The web address is www.alz.org/icad.
Would I know, at the beginning, if I were to develop Alzheimer’s? I don’t want to suffer with a dementia; could I create a way out for myself now, in the event I lose my mind later?
That was one of the main character’s thoughts in Lisa Genova’s heartbreaking/inspiring/terrifying novel, “Still Alice.” A neuroscientist, Alice Howland develops early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. (The paperback, published by Pocket Books, sells for $15.)
It’s a compelling question: What is it like to have dementia?
So when I got an email from WebMD with that subject line, I had to read more.
Writer R. Morgan Griffin does a good job of explaining how caregivers help themselves, and their loved one, by understanding what the disease is like for the person who has it. An excerpt:
Some people think of memory loss superficially, as merely forgetting words or names. But it’s much more profound than that. Everything we do is premised on memory. When you walk into the kitchen to make dinner, your actions are almost unconscious. You grab food from the fridge, turn on the oven, take out plates and silverware – your memories are a foundation, and they give you a context for what you’re supposed to do in a given situation.
For a person with dementia, that context is ripped away. A woman with Alzheimer’s disease may walk into a kitchen and have no idea why she’s there or what she’s supposed to be doing. She might still be able to make dinner – especially in the early stages of the disease – but it’s a struggle. Each step has to be reasoned out and thought through. That’s why people with dementia tend to act more slowly than they once did.
The rest of the article is full of additional observations and explanations. Read it, and you’ll find yourself saying, “so that’s why my Mom does…” or “that explains why Dad did…”
Understanding dementia from a patient’s point of view can make caregiving less frustrating. Knowing the patient personally is important, too.
We fretted over how to convince Dad that he needed to live in a memory care facility. Stubborn and independent, he was unlikely to admit he needed help, that it was for his safety. Tell him he had dementia and he’d appear quietly stunned–and you could not tell if he was processing the information, angry about it, or considering what those words meant. But he was still Dad.
The facility we were considering, Silverado, had a calendar of events planned for the residents, and one of the outings was to the State Fair of Texas. Since Dad had run the midway there for years, we figured that would be an ideal day for Dad to visit Silverado. He knew Silverado was for people with various types of dementia, and he knew the residents would need help getting around the fairgrounds. He found a purpose in acting as their guide. Soon he began believing Silverado was where he worked–he returned home in the evenings to sleep at first–and the staff kept him busy stuffing envelopes and such. When I’d call, he answered the phone as he always had answered his work phone: “Cleveland Smith, may I help you?”
It broke my heart. But, I recognized Dad had found a way to cope with his diagnosis. So had we. We joined reality with his reality, and together we were understanding what it is like to have dementia.