Is exercise a proven way to treat dementia? The studies on this one have been all over the map. This morning let’s delve into one that supports the idea that exercise helps cognitive decline.
My Experiences with Dementia
I still remember the first time I met a patient with severe dementia while in my internship. She had such memory loss that she couldn’t recall my visit with her when I walked out of her hospital room and then came right back. Fast forward a few years and my father later developed Lewy body disease with its cruel mix of the bad parts of Alzheimer’s dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and some hallucinations thrown in for good measure. Then there’s classic late-middle-age forgetfulness that many of us experience, but when juxtaposed against these two experiences seems very mild. It’s this type of early cognitive decline that many physicians want to tackle. Basically, catching the disease early before things begin to really go south.
Science Disproving Science
Science loves trying to disprove science, and one hot-topic area we are seeing this a lot in lately is in the many contradicting studies on exercise and its effect or lack of effect on dementia and other conditions causing cognitive decline. A few months ago, I shared two studies published just a couple of months apart that came to entirely different conclusions on the topic. One concluded that cognitive performance (e.g., attention, planning, judgment, speed of thought, etc.) in dementia patients was improved with regular exercise. The other concluded not only did cognitive function not improve, but it actually worsened with regular exercise.
So did one study disprove the other? Quite the contrary—scientific contradictions such as these just seem to light a fire under researchers to keep seeking the one study that will disprove them all. Fast forward a few months, and we now have a new study on exercise and cognitive decline that has entered the fray, and this one places another tally mark on the pro side of exercise and its effect on cognitive decline in general. Let’s review…
Exercise Improves Mild Cognitive Decline in Older Patients
A recent study, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, investigated not just the effect of exercise on memory in an elderly population with mild cognitive decline but also how the effect happens. This was compared to exercise in an elderly population without cognitive decline (i.e., the control group). The results? In participants with normal cognitive processing, cerebral blood flow in the brain increased, while in participants with mild cognitive decline, cerebral blood flow decreased. In other words, exercise changed the rate of blood flow in the brain but in opposite ways between groups. Interestingly, in both groups, cognitive performance improved!
How is this possible? The group with cognitive decline had a significantly elevated rate of cerebral blood flow to the affected areas at their baseline (meaning at the start of the study) when compared to the group with no cognitive decline. Researchers suggested that when the brain begins to experience cognitive decline, the brain responds by increasing blood flow to the area and that this increase in blood flow may result in even further memory loss. Slowing the increased cerebral blood flow (in this case via exercise) was found to reverse the issue, improving cognitive performance.
Does This Mean if I Exercise I Won’t Get Dementia?
This certainly doesn’t mean exercise is a preventative or cure for dementia. While this study didn’t look at patients diagnosed specifically with dementia, the study did measure blood flow changes specifically in areas of the brain associated with Alzheimer’s dementia (e.g. insula, anterior cingulate cortex, and the inferior frontal gyrus). So the improvement of mild cognitive decline in an elderly population may mean exercise at this early potentially symptomatic stage can delay the onset of dementia.
More Benefits of Exercise as You Age
While we continue to let the research duke it out over whether exercise does or doesn’t improve dementia, perhaps the key is to exercise and keep exercising throughout life to keep your mind as sharp as possible as long as possible. At the very least, if your memory is just starting to fail you, starting exercise now, according to this study, may help you reclaim some cognitive performance before it advances. The benefits of exercise in an aging population, however, don’t end with mental sharpness. Let’s look at a few other reasons to exercise throughout middle age and into our retirement years:
- There’s the obvious heart-health benefits, even in the 60 and above age group and even in those who are obese in their senior years.
- The risk of heart failure decreases with exercise, even in who don’t start until middle age or older.
- Exercise in our older years may keep the immune system healthy (which is known to decline as we age, possibly due to lower activity).
- Seniors who exercise may appreciate more muscle mass and faster muscle repair than their nonexercising counterparts.
My Old-Age Brain Solutions
As we all age, many of us begin to notice that we tend to lose a little memory edge in late middle age or by our fifties. Are there things that I do to combat this? I definitely have a strategy.
First, I exercise six days a week. That’s usually two days doing cardio, two days with heavy weights, and two days on floor exercises. Second, I always try to spend at least eight to nine hours in bed. Finally, the single biggest thing that I have seen make a noticeable difference is Lion’s Mane. This is a mushroom extract that was recommended by a physician colleague and that has been shown in vitro to help nerve-cell growth. I take two a day in the morning and this seemed to clear up my old-age brain very quickly. Whether it works for you I can’t say, but here’s a link to the supplement I purchase.
The upshot? Exercise brings so many other health benefits that even with its effect on early dementia still not being settled science, you should get out there and hit it. If that means that this helps your memory then great. In the meantime, your heart, bones, and muscles will thank you!