In Alzheimer’s disease, memory loss and cognitive function may be improved with regular moderate exercise

regular exercise in Alzheimer's diseaseIn Alzheimer’s disease, memory loss and cognitive function may be improved with regular moderate exercise. Exercise is effective in Alzheimer’s disease because it improves the efficiency of memory-related brain activity.

The researchers uncovered the beneficial effects of exercise in seniors with mild cognitive impairment. Not only does exercise improve memory recall but it improves brain function, too, which was confirmed with functional neuroimaging.


Lead researcher Dr. J. Carson Smith said, “We found that after 12 weeks of being on a moderate exercise program, study participants improved their neural efficiency – basically they were using fewer neural resources to perform the same memory task. No study has shown that a drug can do what we showed is possible with exercise.”

The researchers put two different groups of seniors over the age of 80 on a 12-week plan focusing on treadmill training and guidance from a personal trainer. Adult participants in one group had mild cognitive impairment and healthy brains in the other group. Both groups experienced improvements in their cardiovascular health by 10 percent at the end of the 12 weeks. Furthermore, both groups saw improvements in their memory.

The good news is, the results were achieved with consistent physical activity recommendations of moderate exercise as outlined for older adults. This was exercise that increased heart rate and caused sweating, but wasn’t too strenuous, meaning, they were able to hold a conversation while performing it.

Dr. Smith added, “People with MCI [mild cognitive impairment] are on a very sharp decline in their memory function, so being able to improve their recall is a very big step in the right direction.” He plans to conduct larger studies on healthy individuals and those with a risk of Alzheimer’s disease to reconfirm the benefits of exercise on the brain.

Regular exercise could stave off Alzheimer’s disease symptoms

An alternative study found that regular exercise could stave off Alzheimer’s disease symptoms. The study included 30 men and women who were put through a treadmill fitness test along with an ultrasound of the heart. The researchers also scanned the participants’ brains to monitor blood flow to certain brain areas.

Research lead Nathan Johnson explained, “We set out to characterize the relationship between heart function, fitness, and cerebral blood flow, which no other study had explored to date. In other words, if you’re in good physical shape, does that improve blood flow to critical areas of the brain? And does that improved blood flow provide some form of protection from dementia?”

The results of the study showed an increase of blood flow in critical areas of the brain in those who were more physically active.

“Can we prove irrefutably that increased fitness will prevent Alzheimer’s disease? Not at this point. But this is an important first step towards demonstrating that being physically active improves blood flow to the brain and confers some protection from dementia, and conversely that people who live sedentary lifestyles, especially those who are genetically predisposed to Alzheimer’s, might be more susceptible,” Johnson added.

“In the mid-late 20th century, much of the research into dementias like Alzheimer’s focused on vascular contributions to disease, but the discovery of amyloid plaques and tangles took prevailing research in a different direction. Research like this heralds a return to the exploration of the ways the vascular system contributes to the disease process,” he concluded.

Risk of Alzheimer’s disease reduced with regular exercise

Olive oil enriched Mediterranean diet reduces risk of breast cancerA healthy diet and regular exercise have been found to help lower a person’s risk of Alzheimer’s disease by protecting the brain from the changes that result in mental deterioration.

The study looked at 44 patients with mild memory problems. The researchers found that those who followed the Mediterranean diet and were more physically active had fewer brain tangles, compared to those who consumed an unhealthy diet and weren’t as physically active.

Lead researcher Dr. David Merrill said, “Alzheimer’s disease is known to be incurable, but it was not thought until recently that it can be preventable.”

Although previous studies have pointed to a connection between healthy eating, exercise, and the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, the present study is the first to demonstrate the direct impact of lifestyle factors on the levels of abnormal protein deposits in the brain associated with Alzheimer’s disease. “The fact that we could detect this influence of lifestyle at a molecular level so early in a patient’s symptoms surprised us,” Dr. Merrill added.


Meanwhile, here are the so-called 10 ways to love your brain from the Alzheimer’s Association:

  • Exercise your body
  • Exercise your brain (take a class, for example)
  • Don’t smoke
  • Control your blood pressure and diabetes
  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Sleep well. Treat insomnia and sleep apnea
  • Seek help for mental issues, such as depression and anxiety
  • Be socially active
  • Challenge your mind with games, art, and hobbies
  • Protect your head. Wear a seat belt, use a helmet when cycling, and avoid falls.

Benefits of exercise and physical activity in people with dementia

hdl protection against heart diseaseExercise plays an integral part in improving and maintaining overall health. Benefits of exercise and physical activity in patients with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease include:

  • Improved heart health, lower blood pressure, and reduced risk of heart disease
  • Reduced risk of certain cancers and diabetes
  • Strong muscles and bones
  • Improved ability to perform daily tasks
  • Improved cognition
  • Opportunity for social interaction
  • Reduced risks of falls
  • Confidence boost
  • Increased self-esteem
  • Better moods
  • Improved blood flow to the brain
  • Delayed onset of Alzheimer’s disease

As you can see, exercise can work in numerous ways to improve brain health and overall well-being. As studies have suggested, exercise doesn’t have to be strenuous to offer benefits. Even going for a regular 30-minute walk can go a long way in improving brain health.

Author Bio

Emily Lunardo studied medical sociology at York University with a strong focus on the social determinants of health and mental illness. She is a registered Zumba instructor, as well as a Canfit Pro trainer, who teaches fitness classes on a weekly basis. Emily practices healthy habits in her own life as well as helps others with their own personal health goals. Emily joined Bel Marra Health as a health writer in 2013.