Going Beyond Risk Reduction: Physical Exercise May Be An Effective Treatment For Alzheimer's Disease and Vascular Dementia

July 23, 2015

WASHINGTON, DC– Findings from research conducted at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center by Laura Baker, Ph.D., associate professor of gerontology and geriatric medicine, were reported today at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Washington, D.C.

One of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s is a brain lesion known as a tau tangle. Normally, tau functions to stabilize the structure of cells in the brain. When is becomes abnormal, tau initiates a variety of biological changes that can result in brain cells dying. Higher levels of tau in the brain are associated with faster rates of decline to Alzheimer’s dementia. Therapies to prevent cognitive decline and dementia are now beginning to focus on reducing tau.

Baker had previously shown that in older adults with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), regular moderate-to-high intensity aerobic exercise has benefits for cognition and plasma levels of amyloid protein, the primary component of the other Alzheimer’s hallmark lesion, known as plaques.

In the study reported on today, participants were randomly assigned to either supervised aerobic training or a stretching group for 45-60 minutes four times per week for six months, using community facilities. The aerobic group exercised at 70 to 80 percent of their maximum heart rate, while the stretching group exercised at below 35 percent. The researchers tested participant’s cognitive skills (verbal recall, tests of executive function) and examined blood and cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) samples at the beginning and end of the study.

Forty participants also received MRI brain scans. Participants completed their assigned exercise activities 92 percent of the time.

The researchers found that:

• Participants who completed aerobic exercise (most commonly using a treadmill) saw a statistically significant (p<0.05) reduction in tau levels in CSF. The effect was most pronounced in adults over the age of 70.

• Aerobic exercise significantly (p<0.05) increased blood flow in the memory and processing centers of participant’s brains, with a corresponding improvement in attention, planning, and organizing abilities referred to as “executive function” (p<0.05).

“These findings are important because they strongly suggest a potent lifestyle intervention such as aerobic exercise can impact Alzheimer’s-related changes in the brain,” Baker said. “No currently approved medication can rival these effects.”

Read the entire news release from the Alzheimer’s Association.

Media Relations

Marguerite Beck: marbeck@wakehealth.edu, 336-716-2415