Exercise improves brain function in those at risk of Alzheimer’s

Aerobic exercise can improve brain function in those with a family history of Alzheimer’s.

A new study from Wisconsin, USA has looked at people at risk for Alzheimer’s disease to see whether exercise could improve their brain function.

Published in a special edition of the journal Brain Plasticity, the research may have a profound impact on people predisposed to dementia.

“This study is a significant step toward developing an exercise prescription that protects the brain against Azheimer’s disease, even among people who were previously sedentary,” said lead investigator Dr. Ozioma C. Okonkwo.

The study

Researchers analysed 23 normal but sedentary people with a family history or genetic predisposition for Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia; it affects up to 70 per cent of all people with dementia. There is not yet a cure. Dementia is the single biggest cause of disability in Australians aged 65 or older. Almost half a million Australians are living with the disease.

Researchers randomly divided the participants into two groups. Half of the group were put on a moderate-intensity treadmill exercise program with a personal trainer. Each exercise session went for 50 minutes.

They performed a workout three times a week for six months (26 weeks).

The other half of the group received information about how to maintain an active lifestyle but no further help.

All participants underwent testing before the intervention. These tests included cardio fitness, cognitive function, brain glucose metabolism imaging and measured their daily physical activity.

The results showed that the exercise group improved their fitness and were less sedentary after the program.

But more importantly, the group that exercised performed better on cognitive tests of executive functioning. Executive function is the mental processes that allow us to focus, plan, multitask and remember things. Executive function declines as Alzheimer’s progresses.

In addition, the exercise participants’ improved cardiorespiratory fitness was associated with increased glucose metabolism in an area of the brain linked to Alzheimer’s called the posterior cingulate cortex.

Representative brain glucose metabolism scan from a participant in the usual low level of physical activity group (left) and from a participant in the moderate intensity aerobic training group (right). Red indicates a greater degree of brain glucose metabolism. Credit: Brain Plasticity

“This research shows that a lifestyle behaviour — regular aerobic exercise — can potentially enhance brain and cognitive functions that are particularly sensitive to the disease,” said Dr. Okonkwo.

“The findings are especially relevant to individuals who are at a higher risk due to family history or genetic predisposition.”

From here, the researchers intend to plan a larger study to see if they can get the same results.


Gaitán, M. et al. (2019.) ‘Brain Glucose Metabolism, Cognition, and Cardiorespiratory Fitness Following Exercise Training in Adults at Risk for Alzheimer’s Disease.’ Brain Plasticity. Vol. 5, No. 1, pp. 83-95, 2019. DOI: 10.3233/BPL-190093

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