Can Exercise Help to Prevent Alzheimer’s?


Your brain may thank you the next time you hit the gym.

A new study is being conducted by the Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute at the University of Texas to determine whether regular aerobic exercise and taking medications to reduce high blood pressure and cholesterol levels can help preserve brain function.

Flickr Image Courtesy: Fit Approach, CC BY-SA 4.0
Flickr Image Courtesy: Fit Approach, CC BY-SA 4.0

“There is plenty of evidence to suggest that what is bad for your cardiovascular system is bad for your brain, but the body is one machine and you cannot separate the heart from the brain,” said Rong Zhang, associate professor of Neurology and Neurotherapeutics at UT Southwestern Medical Center.

Zhang will lead the research for the five-year study. It will be carried out at six medical centers around the country with plans to enroll 600 older adults at high risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. The study will measure whether certain interventions can be linked to slower brain decline.

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Those involved will participate in regular aerobic exercise and take specific medications to reduce high blood pressure and cholesterol levels. This will help added to data needed to determine whether treating high blood pressure can help the brain’s function.

“That’s the point of this study. People are looking for a silver bullet to stop the disease. But Alzheimer’s is a multi-factor disease. You have to do A, B, C, and D together, which will hopefully make the difference,” said Zhang, director of the Cerebrovascular Laboratory in the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas, where the Dallas arm of the study will be conducted.

The study hopes to build on previous findings that link healthy lifestyles better brain function. Researchers will measure the effectiveness of various combinations of intervention in four groups of participants, including those who receive both exercise and medication along with others who only receive some or none of the interventions.

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Researchers will watch for changes in memory and other functions by using cognitive testing and MRIs to monitor brain cell communication and blood flow. They will also measure brain volume along with other factors to help determine which interventions are the most effective in stopping the decline of brain function.

Carol White, who has had relatives diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s, was the first person to sign up for the study. White does government and public affairs contract work.

“I live with the possibility Alzheimer’s might also touch my life. You just take a deep breath and wonder,” she said. “I’m just interested in doing anything that I can that might help in some small way to find a cure. It’s not a pleasant thing to see your relatives go through.”

Zhang and his team conducted a study in 2013 that found that neuronal messages are more efficiently relayed in brains of older adults who exercise. A study by UCLA found that a healthy diet and regular exercise can reduce the incidence of toxic protein buildup associated with Alzheimer’s.

The study is supported by funding from the National Institutes on Aging.