The Most Effective Way to Protect an Aging Brain

The Most Effective Way to Protect an Aging Brain

Aug. 7, 2015 — Scientists have a message for anyone who’s worried about memory loss — move, a lot.

Researchers have known for some time that exercise is good for aging brains. The latest studies, though, are adding some finer points to that message: While exercise appears to work best before memory fades, it also benefits people who’ve already gotten dementia. And it seems to help not just with Alzheimer’s disease, but also with vascular dementia, a kind of memory loss that’s caused by “silent” strokes in the brain.

Three studies presented at the recent meeting of the Alzheimer’s Association in Washington D.C. detailed the effects. Exercise lowered levels of toxic tau proteins and increased blood flow in the brains of people with early memory changes that put them at risk for dementia. Four months of intense exercise improved symptoms like anxiety, irritability, and depression in people with Alzheimer’s, though it didn’t help their memories. But 6 months of exercise did improve memory and thinking in people diagnosed with vascular dementia.

Experts say these are important gains for patients who have few effective treatments.

“No currently approved medication can rival these effects,” says researcher Laura Baker, PhD, an associate professor of gerontology and geriatric medicine at the Wake Forest School of Medicine.

The Powerful Protection of Exercise

“Exercise is, right now, the most powerful effect in terms of prevention of Alzheimer’s disease,” says Stephen Rao, PhD, the director of the Schey Center for Cognitive Neuroimaging at the Cleveland Clinic.

“I’m sure a drug is going to come along that will also work in terms of prevention. But right now, the best thing you can do to prevent Alzheimer’s is to get people on a treadmill or walking,” he says.

Rao has been studying older adults who carry a gene that greatly raises their risk for Alzheimer’s disease. About 1 in 5 Americans carry at least one copy of this gene, called APOE4, and it boosts their risk of getting the disease from 3- to 15-fold, depending on whether they have one or two copies of it. When Rao’s team started the studies, his volunteers showed no signs of memory or thinking troubles.

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