6 Ways That Exercise Helps Alzheimer's Disease

Routine exercise may improve memory, cognition, and coordination

An older gentleman running in front of a lake

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Physical exercise has long been touted as a way to reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. In recent years, a growing body of evidence suggests that exercise may also benefit those living with the disease, potentially slowing or reversing the progression of symptoms.

As a chronic progressive disease, Alzheimer's requires more than just medications to preserve cognitive function and the quality of life. People with Alzheimer's can benefit enormously from behavioral and environmental changes, reality orientation training, caregiver support, and other non-drug interventions. Physical exercise may be yet another vital tool in the Alzheimer's treatment plan.

Here are 6 Alzheimer-related conditions that exercise may help improve:

Depression

As many as 30% of people living with Alzheimer's disease will experience major depression, according to a 2015 review in Australian Prescriber. Beyond its impact on the quality of life, depression can further intensify memory loss in those already struggling with dementia.

Physical exercise stimulates the production of hormones and neurotransmitters associated with memory and mood. These include endorphins and encephalins that influence memory retention and serotonin which can help elevate mood and enhance memory and learning.

Restlessness and Wandering

Exercise may help prevent some of the more challenging aspects of Alzheimer's disease. This includes the restlessness and wandering that can occur at any stage of the disease. A person who expends energy on exercise may be less likely to wander or be jittery than someone who is sedentary.

From a physiological standpoint, the human body tends to feel more relaxed and rested after physical exercise. The same applies to people with Alzheimer's.

The aim is not to "wear someone out" but rather to use physical exercise to alleviate agitation and improve physical and emotional well-being.

Even if someone is in an advanced stage of dementia, routine walks may help. The change of environment alone can provide more visual and auditory stimulation than sitting alone in a confined space.

Balance and Coordination

As Alzheimer's disease progresses, the ability to walk and carry out daily tasks begins to decline. To better maintain a quality of life, every effort must be made to preserve physical balance, strength, and coordination.

The biggest concern is the risk of falls and hip fractures which affects people with Alzheimer's three times more than people without, according to a 2011 study in Age and Aging.

Physical exercise can improve balance by strengthening the muscles in the legs, hips, torso, and spine that enable an erect, upright posture.

By maintaining an upright (rather than stooped) posture, a person is less likely to overcompensate for imbalances that occur when walking, reaching, turning, or bending.

Cardiovascular Complications

The body is an interconnected system. Severe problems in one organ system can invariably affect others, often significantly. One such example is the cardiovascular system and the brain.

Poor cardiovascular health has long been associated with cognitive decline irrespective of mental status. With Alzheimer's disease, any condition that impairs blood flow to the brain increases the risk of not only Alzheimer dementia but vascular dementia, a common comorbid condition. 

Routine exercise, along with diet, weight loss, and the cessation of smoking, is central to the prevention and treatment of atherosclerosis and other cardiovascular diseases associated with diminished blood flow to the brain.

Sleep Problems

The lack of sleep can impair cognition and memory whether or not you have Alzheimer's disease. Even in perfectly healthy people, sleep deprivation is associated with fatigue, irritability, depression, lack of motivation, clumsiness, forgetfulness, and difficulty learning new concepts. All of these things can undermine the health and well-being of someone living with Alzheimer's.

Routine exercise is one way to help overcome sleep problems. By exercising with moderate intensity during the day, you are more likely to sleep restfully at night. This, coupled with good sleep hygiene, may alleviate the fuzziness and lack of focus that only serves to complicate Alzheimer's disease.

Cognitive Impairment

Routine exercise may also prevent or reverse the loss of cognitive function in certain cases. Most of the current evidence suggests that aerobic exercise can help adults who have mild cognitive impairment as a result of age and Alzheimer's disease.

A 2015 study involving 50 adults with mild Alzheimer dementia concluded that exercise, when performed three times weekly for 40 minutes, improved cognitive function scores while reducing adverse psychiatric symptoms.

Whether the same would occur in people with moderate to severe cognitive impairment is uncertain.

With that being said, exercise can improve selective functions in most older adults. Weight training, for example, can enhance selective attention by focusing one's attention on the muscle movement and repetition count. The same can occur with any physical activity (including walking) that requires attention, coordination, and/or navigational skills.

All in all, the benefits of exercise in people with Alzheimer's outweigh the possible risks if applied appropriately and safely.

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Article Sources

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  2. Baker NL, Cook MN, Arrighi M, Bullock R. Hip fracture risk and subsequent mortality among Alzheimer's disease patients in the United Kingdom, 1988–2007. Age Ageing 2011 Jan;40(1):49-54. doi:10.1093/ageing/afq146.

  3. Jefferson AL, Beiser AS, Himali JJ, et al. Low cardiac index is associated with incident dementia and Alzheimer disease: the Framingham Heart Study. Circulation. 2015 Apr 14;131(15):1333-9. doi:10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.114.012438.

  4. Yang SY, Shan CL, Qing H, et al. The Effects of Aerobic Exercise on Cognitive Function of Alzheimer's Disease Patients. CNS Neurol Disord Drug Targets. 2015;14(10):1292-7.

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