Three studies are scheduled to be underway in 2018 to measure the effectiveness of exercise on delaying onset symptoms of dementia.
Scheduled to start in the spring, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will help fund a five-year study led by Carson Smith, associate professor of kinesiology at the University of Maryland to determine how exercise affects cognition, brain function, and brain structure. Participants will be healthy individuals ages 60 to 80 with a genetic risk for Alzheimer’s.
Participants in this study will be split into two groups, with one group performing stretching and toning activities and the other to perform the same, but with the addition of treadmill walking. Participants will perform these exercises for one hour a day, four days a week for six months. Over the five-year period, 150 participants will have been involved.
Since there is no way to definitively diagnose Alzheimer’s without an autopsy, Smith’s lab will assess the results after each six-month trial by conducting head imaging and pencil and paper tests of participants’ cognitive performance, as well as MRI scans to observe blood flow and structural changes in the brain. Smith hopes to prove that exercise can delay the onset symptoms of dementia in healthy adults¾an expectation supported by his previous study, which showed changes in the brain after a three-month routine of brisk walking.
Laura Baker, associate professor of gerontology and geriatric medicine and the Wake Forest School of Medicine and lead researcher for the U.S. Pointer study (a two-year clinical trial coordinated by the Alzheimer’s Association and supported by NIH) is taking a similar route in 2018 as well, but she is looking at exercise as only one component to delaying symptoms of the disease, with a whole body approach being the focus. This U.S. Pointer study considers how a combination of healthy lifestyle choices, including exercise, good nutrition, social and intellectual challenge, and improved self-management of medical conditions can delay onset of the disease.
The 2,500 participants in Baker’s first-of-its-kind, nationwide study will be ages 60 to 79 with medical conditions that have been linked to an increased risk for dementia (such as hypertension) and who already have mild cognitive impairment. To fulfill the good nutrition component of the study, participants will follow the MIND (Mediterranean-DASH intervention for neurodegenerative delay) diet which incorporates aspects of the Mediterranean diet, as well as the DASH diet, which is recommended for hypertension. A key motivation for participants of the U.S. Pointer study is that they will have an immediate family member who has or had dementia.
Baker is also leading a third study titled Exercise in Adults with Mild Memory Problems (EXERT), an 18-month trial that will test the effect of aerobic exercise on cognition in 300 participants who have mild cognitive impairment and who are considered to be generally sedentary. Participants will be ages 65 to 89 and half will participate in 45-minute-stretching-balance-range of motion exercise programs, while the other half will participate in a moderate- to high-intensity 45-minute aerobic training program, four times per week for 12 months.
Because there is currently no cure for dementia, these studies represent a potential step forward in slowing the onset of the disease’s symptoms so individuals can lead healthier lives for longer.