Exercise, Brain Health, and Dementia: What the Research Says

Everyone knows that exercise improves your physical well-being. It helps you fit in your jeans and open pickle jars. It can lift your mood and your sex drive. More recently, researchers have shown how exercise improves our brain’s ability to reason, concentrate, and remember. A 2013 research review concluded that exercise improves brain function in children and adults. New brain imaging technology has documented the positive changes that occur in our brain when we exercise. A more recent research review looked at exercise, cognition, and normal aging. It found clear evidence that exercise helps our brains stay healthy as we age.

But what about the impact of exercise on people with dementia? A recent Cochrane review examined studies on exercise and Alzheimer’s disease. They found 17 studies involving a total of 1,067 participants. The studies looked at whether exercise could improve Alzheimer’s symptoms. Some of the studies measured cognitive tasks like memory, reasoning, and spatial abilities. Others looked at psychological function, behavior, mental health, and the ability to do daily activities. The studies used a wide variety of exercise programs and lasted for different amounts of time. Combined results from six studies showed that patients who exercised were better able to do daily tasks, but no firm conclusions could be made since the studies were small and the results variable. There was no evidence of improved thinking, behavior, or psychological or mental health.

Why the difference between this review and the findings on normal aging? It is possible that bigger, better studies will show that exercise improves brain function in dementia. The reviewed studies on normal aging included more than 33,000 subjects, over thirty times as many as the Alzheimer’s studies in the Cochrane review. It is also possible that whatever causes Alzheimer’s is not affected by exercise.  What we do know for sure is that exercise helps keep normal brains healthy and happy, and can protect us from heart disease, diabetes, and many other diseases.  Both the Alzheimer’s Association and the National Institute on Aging recommend making exercise a part of your daily routine.

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