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(CNN) - A half hour of aerobic exercise four or five times a week can prevent or delay cognitive impairment in older adults who are at high risk of developing Alzheimer's disease, according to a study published Tuesday in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease .
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"This is the first randomized and controlled trial ... to assess the effects of exercise on brain structure, function and amyloid load in older adults who have memory problems, therefore, high risks of Alzheimer's disease," said the Lead author Rong Zhang, a professor of neurology at the UT Southwestern Medical Center.
The study was a small proof-of-concept trial of people aged 55 or older with mild cognitive impairment. Subjects were randomized to 12 months of aerobic exercise or stretching and toning. According to the researchers, both aerobic exercise and stretching can prevent or delay cognitive impairment, but aerobic exercise had more benefits to reduce hippocampal contraction than stretching. The hippocampus is a region of the brain crucial for memory.
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Neither type of exercise prevented the amyloid groups, a hallmark of Alzheimer's disease, from continuing to develop in the brains of the 70 adults who participated in the study. But the MRI and PET images showed that those who did aerobic exercise had a slower degeneration in the hippocampus than those who did flexibility training.
"The brains of the participants with amyloid responded more to aerobic exercise than the others," said Zhang.
"The key positive finding is that exercise intervention specifically reduced the contraction of the memory center in the brain in people with the earliest symptomatic stage of Alzheimer's disease," said neurologist Dr. Richard Isaacson, who founded the Prevention Clinic. of Alzheimer's in Weill Cornell Medicine.
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"Most doctors believe in the power of exercise to support the general health of the brain, but few believe that exercise can specifically affect people with early Alzheimer's," Isaacson said. "This study brings us one step closer to the detection of the effects in people with Alzheimer's disease defined by biomarkers."
While the study results should be replicated in much larger studies, Zhang suggested that anyone concerned with cognitive impairment or Alzheimer's should consider adding exercise to their daily lives. While it is better to start exercising early in life, he said, "it is not too late to receive the benefits of exercise, even late in life when there are already amyloid groups in the brain."