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Posted: July 22, 2008

Exercise May Prevent Brain Shrinkage in Early Alzheimer's

Patients diagnosed with mild Alzheimer’s disease who followed an exercise routine had larger brains compared to mild Alzheimer’s patients with lower levels of physical fitness, according to a study published in the journal Neurology. In some cases, the amount of brain shrinkage in the less physically fit was up to four times greater.

For the study, 121 people age 60 and older underwent fitness tests using a treadmill as well as brain scans to measure the white matter, gray matter and total volume of their brains. Of the group, 57 were in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease while the rest of the group had not been diagnosed with dementia.

“People with early Alzheimer’s disease who were less physically fit had four times more brain shrinkage when compared to normal older adults than those who were more physically fit, suggesting less brain shrinkage related to the Alzheimer's disease process in those with higher fitness levels,” said study author Dr. Jeffrey M. Burns, of the University of Kansas School of Medicine in Kansas City.

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The results remained the same regardless of age, gender, severity of dementia, physical activity and frailty, Burns said, adding that there was no relationship between higher fitness levels and brain changes in the group of people without dementia.

“People with early Alzheimer’s disease may be able to preserve their brain function for a longer period of time by exercising regularly and potentially reducing the amount of brain volume lost. Evidence shows decreasing brain volume is tied to poorer cognitive performance, so preserving more brain volume may translate into better cognitive performance,” Burns said.

“This is one of the first studies to explore the relationship between cardio-respiratory fitness and Alzheimer’s disease,” he added.

Burns cautioned that people should be careful when interpreting the study results because scientists only observed the standard measure of fitness at one point in time.

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