Is Aerobic Exercise the Antidote to Alzheimers?

It's almost impossible to turn the exercise-averse or fitness-phobic couch potato into a workout-aholic. Believe me I've tried. No amount of touting the benefits of regular exercise, from looking and feeling better, to reducing risk factors of diabetes and cardiovascular disease has made a permanent difference in the behavior of people who just don't like to break a sweat. Maybe because there's plenty of drugs or common surgical procedures like angioplasty and bypasses to manage these diseases that these people may think, "I'll just cross that bridge when I come it." (Mom, are you reading this?)

Well, there is one disease that scares the be-jeezus out of most everyone who's ever seen it up close and there is no drug or surgery that really works on it yet. No, I don't mean the "c-word," although exercise has shown benefits in that area too. I'm referring to dementia and the big "A," Alzheimer's disease. Sofa slugs, pay attention here: Aerobic exercise is panning out to be the best antidote we have to neurocognitive decline.

Deep in the center of our brains lies the hippocampus. It's the part of our brain that is essential to memory and learning. As we age, the hippocampus shrinks and the older we get, the faster it shrinks to the tune of 1 percent to 2 percent a year, contributing to memory loss and risk of dementia or Alzheimer's.

Arthur Kramer, the director of the Beckman Institute and a professor of neuroscience at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana authored a new study published in the January 31, 2011 issue of the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences which theoretically finds that "aerobic exercise training is effective at reversing hippocampal volume loss in late adulthood, which is accompanied by improved memory function."

The study was comprised of 120 Americans in their late 50s to early 80s. Researchers randomly assigned half to an exercise group walking three times a week for 40 min. aiming for their target heart rate. The other half was assigned to a stretching group doing yoga and toning type exercises and they also served as the control group. Both groups were given MRI scans to test for changes in the hippocampus. The test results showed the hippocampus increased by 2 percent in the aerobic walkers after a year but shrank by 1.4 percent in the control group.

Giving a whole new meaning to the term, "gym rat," Kramer said in a recent interview on NPR's Science Friday, "the research we've done with humans is based upon a number of years, over a decade's work of research with animals, mostly rodents. And we know from the animal research that if you give an animal access to running wheel, and it uses it, that there are a number of changes in the brain, and the area that's been examined, probably most intensely, is the hippocampus."

This study isn't Kramer's first foray into trying to prove that physical fitness fosters brain power. In 2003, Kramer co-authored a report titled, "Fitness effects on the cognitive function of older adults: A Meta-Analytic study." (Psychological Science March 1, 2003 vol. 14 no. 2 125-130) I've also previously blogged about this topic on HuffPost "Anti Aging for Your Brain."

It's tough getting non-exercisers motivated. I hope this expanding arsenal of research will get more people to realize regular exercise is not just good for an expanding waistline.

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