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Posted: October 28, 2008

Regular Exercise Routine Can Reverse Alzheimer's Effects, Expert Says

An ongoing exercise program can reverse the effects of age-related brain decline, including some of the impact of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, a leading neuroscientist says. 

Patients diagnosed with full-blown Alzheimer’s have previously been encouraged by experts to maintain as much physical activity as possible as a means of slowing the ravages of the disease. But this latest finding indicates that exercise can go a step further, even helping to reverse the brain decay that presents itself in older adults. 

Art Kramer, a professor and leading neuroscientist at the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois, cited studies that found speed and sharpness of thought, and brain size, were increased with moderate physical and aerobic exercise.

As little as six months of exercise was found to reverse age-related decline in brain power, Kramer said, adding that the brains of older people who continued to exercise retained their capacity to grow and develop, a process he called “plasticity.” Other studies showed that adults with higher levels of physical fitness had less evidence of deterioration in gray matter, which plays a role in the thinking process, than peers who are less physically fit.

These benefits have been noted in people with Alzheimer's disease as well as in those with no signs of progressive brain disease, Kramer wrote in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. He added that cognitive decline, marked by a deterioration of both white and gray matter, is greatest in that part of the brain referred to as "executive control," which affects task coordination, planning, goal maintenance, working memory and the ability to switch tasks.

Overall, Kramer noted, adults who are physically fit heading into older age showed less evidence of deterioration in their gray matter than those who were not so active.

"The effect of aerobic exercise training on cognitive function also seems to extend to older adults with dementia," Kramer said.

"We can safely argue that an active lifestyle with moderate amounts of aerobic activity will likely improve cognitive and brain function, and reverse the neural decay frequently observed in older adults."

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