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.”