Stretching, range of motion and aerobic exercise all slow cognitive decline, study finds

“My worry at the start of the study was ‘What if aerobics only made a difference? Good luck the majority of Americans do aerobic exercise on a regular basis!’ It’s not sustainable,” the study author said. Laura Baker, professor of gerontology and geriatric medicine at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, via email.

“But we found that cognitive function did not decline over 12 months for either intervention group – people who did aerobic exercise or those who did stretching, balance and range of motion,” Baker said.

Rudy Tanzi, professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School in Boston, welcomed findings that a modest amount of exercise – 120 to 150 minutes per week for 12 months – can slow cognitive decline in sedentary older people with impaired mild cognitive.

Tanzi, who was not involved in the study, examined the role of exercise in mice genetically bred to have Alzheimer’s disease and found that exercise induces the birth of new neurons in the lowest part of the brain. most affected by Alzheimer’s disease while stimulating beneficial growth factors that enhance neuronal activity.

“Very often, the benefits of interventions seen in Alzheimer’s mouse models don’t translate to human patients. It’s nice to see that in this new study, the benefits of exercise are perhaps translating from mouse to humans,” said Tanzi, who directs the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

What is mild cognitive decline?

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The study, presented Tuesday at the 2022 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in San Diego, followed 296 participants who were completely sedentary at the start of the experiment. All had been diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment – the earliest stage of the slow slide into dementia.

“People who have mild cognitive impairment aren’t cognitively normal, but they don’t have dementia,” Baker said. “They are quite capable of taking care of themselves, but what they have to go through to do that is exhausting.

“’I don’t remember where I’m supposed to be. Let me check my calendar. Oh, I forgot to write on this calendar. Let’s check another calendar. Oh, I can’t find this calendar. lost my phone. Where is the key? I can’t find the key.’

“They’re able to band together at the start and get things done,” Baker said, “but the toll is huge.”

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Study participants underwent cognitive testing and then were randomized into two groups. One group did moderate-intensity aerobic training on treadmills or stationary bikes, striving toward a goal 70% to 85% heart rate reserve: “That’s about 120 beats per minute for about 30 to 40 minutes for a standard 70-year-old male,” Baker said.

The other group did stretching, balance and range of motion exercises designed to get them moving their bodies in ways that helped them navigate real life.

“People in the balance and range of motion group said they were thrilled – they could go to football games with their grandkids without worrying about tripping, or they could drive and twist their necks to see the back, which they couldn’t do before,” Baker said.

Importance of support

Both groups trained twice a week with a personal trainer and then another two times a week on their own for the first 12 months. Together, the groups performed more than 31,000 exercise sessions during that time, Baker said.

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At the end of 12 months, cognitive function had not declined in either group. That’s impressive, Baker said, because an equally matched control group of people with mild cognitive impairment — who didn’t exercise — declined.

Studies have shown that social support is also essential for improving brain health. So is it possible that the results of the study were due to increased social support and not to exercise?

“Well, we don’t know for sure,” Baker said. “But there’s enough scientific data showing the benefits of exercise on brain health alone, so it’s not something to sweep under the rug.

“And our recommendation would never be for people with mild cognitive impairment to do this alone,” she added. “They will need support. So exercise alone is not a prescription. Exercise with support is a prescription, and it will be our recommendation.”

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