Updated: Aug 18
Exercise as a treatment option for many illnesses and diseases, including Alzheimer’s, is currently being scientifically studied. This post will discuss exercise as a possible preventative measure against and intervention for Alzheimer’s, the effect of exercise on depression, and simple ways to integrate exercise into your life.
Studies like Liang et al.’s show that biomarkers of Alzheimer’s disease (proteins and other measurable physical changes indicating the development of Alzheimer’s) are lower in people who exercise more versus those who are more sedentary. However, as the National Institute on Aging points out, it is unclear whether this is because exercise prevents Alzheimer’s or if the reduction of the risk of Alzheimer's is due to other factors (i.e. healthier eating by those who also happen to exercise more or unseen genetic contributors).
Nonetheless, exercise has a number of other benefits like improving mood, reducing stress, and preventing other illnesses, so the side effects of this particular intervention are healthy!
Exercise as an intervention for Alzheimer’s Disease is somewhat promising. A one-year trial of an exercise program in nursing homes indicated that exercise slowed the decrease in one's ability to perform daily tasks and physical activities (such as walking) in comparison to normal treatment.
Although the measures for mood regulation did not change between normal treatment and exercise in this study, the researchers mentioned below found a decrease in depression scales when exercise occurred more than twice a week.
Comorbidities (Alzheimer’s and Depression)
Alzheimer’s patients often have depression as well, with rates around 87% of older adults with Alzheimer’s also suffering from depression. Less than half of these patients treated via psychopharmacology (such as antidepressants) are reported to improve, and some patients do not have easy access to talk therapy or psychopharmacology. Exercise is an alternative treatment option for these patients. Williams & Tappen report that both comprehensive exercise (described below) and supervised individual walking (also below) decreased depression ratings in comparison to casual conversation of the same type. Comprehensive exercise seemed more effective than walking exercise. The exercises are detailed below, although supervision is highly recommended to prevent accidents:
Comprehensive individual exercise: Part one of the comprehensive exercise treatment consisted of ten minutes of strength, balance, and flexibility exercises. Strength training includes shallow knee bends, toe raises, and push-pulls. Balance exercises include side-stepping first to the right, then left, then backward, and finally, in circles. The number of repetitions progressed each week beginning with three per exercise and adding two repetitions each week up to nine repetitions. Part Two of the comprehensive exercise treatment consists of walking. The walking component of the comprehensive exercise progressed up to 20 minutes in duration.
Supervised individual walking: The walking pace was individualized according to the participant’s ability. Participants were permitted to rest as needed. Sessions were progressed to increase time walked up to a maximum of 30 minutes. The interventionist used a gait belt and walked beside the participant, lending their assistance when needed. If the participant normally used an assistive device such as a walker or cane, they continued to use it during the walking sessions.
Growth factors are substances in the body that regulate cell division and survival. Essentially, they maintain the health and connections of our cells, including those in the brain. BDNF is a growth factor involved in learning, memory, and possibly mood that decreases in people with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s. Increasing BDNF levels in these patients is especially important to help maintain a healthy brain.
Exercise has been shown to increase BDNF levels in the hippocampus (an especially important brain structure for learning and memory) as well as the cerebellum, cortex, and spinal cord in rats. This data has been replicated in humans, demonstrating that exercise has a particularly strong effect in populations suffering from mental decline through aging or disease. Researchers have also found that longer, more intense exercise has the best outcomes. We will discuss this more below.
Types of Exercise
Aerobic exercise (aka “cardio” such as swimming, biking, or running) has been demonstrated to be effective in people without dementia. However, a combination of strength training (focusing on the lower limbs) and aerobic exercise has demonstrated to be most effective for patients with dementia, compared to aerobic exercise alone. A full description of the type of exercise employed in this study can be found under “Strength Exercises” in the linked article.
If you would like to exercise more, please remember to be safe by going at your own pace and asking others to participate with you. Social exercise is considered especially helpful for depression, so joining or forming a walking group with friends or family would be very beneficial. Boulder County has various programs, such as a Walk with Ease and a Healthy Moves class, for adults and seniors to safely exercise with community. The NIH also publishes tips specifically for those exercising with Alzheimer’s. Again, make sure you talk to your doctor before making any changes and get your friends and family involved so you can improve your health together!
Contributions by Emma Easterly
“Depression and Alzheimer’s | Caregiver Center.” Alzheimer’s Association. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Feb. 2017.
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