Ask The Expert: Exercise and Brain Health | Alzheimer's Prevention Registry

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December 18, 2015

Ask The Expert: Exercise and Brain Health

By Banner Alzheimer's Institute

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Our December expert is Laura D. Baker, PhD, Associate Professor, Gerontology and Geriatric Medicine at Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Dear Dr. Baker,

My 2016 New Year’s resolution is to start – and maintain – a regular exercise program. I’m “middle aged” and was recently diagnosed with pre-diabetes, which my doctor tells me is associated with other medical conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease. Is there an exercise program that can reduce my blood sugar levels, improve my overall fitness and maintain my brain?


Dear Janelle,
Congratulations! You’re taking on a fitness program for two important reasons: your physical health and your brain health. For many people, this is a new way of thinking about the benefits of exercise so consider yourself ahead of the curve. 

The best way to demonstrate the power of exercise is to share what my colleagues and I learned during our research. Our goal was to learn if exercise could help people with mild memory problems. It intrigued us because past studies had shown that exercise can help healthy and memory-impaired adults improve their ability to think. 

To find out, we gathered 70 individuals ranging in age from 55 to 89. Like you, Janelle, these people were not regular exercisers and each had a diagnosis of pre-diabetes.

We divided this crew into two groups. Participants in one group were asked to complete stretching exercises that would do little to raise heart rates. The second group, however, completed high-intensity aerobic exercise sessions. During these treadmill workouts we challenged them to reach 75 percent of their maximum heart rate for 30-45 minutes, four times a week. For the average 72-year-old, that’s a heart rate of about 130 beats per minute.

What were the results for the participants who pursued the high-intensity aerobic workouts? Their overall physical health improved and their blood sugar levels declined. Also, MRI brain scans of the participants showed blood flow significantly increased in brain regions that are necessary for memory and thinking. These adults also experienced improved attention and concentration, and better ability to plan and organize.

This is good news for you and your New Year’s resolution, Janelle! I hope the information helps you discover exercise as a path to good health in 2016 and for years to come.