One person who’s made a career of finding the answers to whether exercise can prevent Alzheimer’s is Alden Gross, PhD, John Hopkins University Center on Aging and Health.
Dr. Gross’ most recent study, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, examined whether physical activity in midlife is related to improved memory and thinking ability in later life. To answer this question, nearly 650 participants were surveyed about their physical activity and exercise habits in 1978 when participants were, on average, 46 years old. Then, in 2008, memory and thinking ability were measured along with a second survey of their physical activity and exercise habits, when participants were, on average, 77 years old.
This study showed that exercise in midlife did not correlate with better memory and thinking in later life. However, when physical activity was assessed at the same time as cognitive health, there was a positive association between the two.
There are some limitations to the current study that are important to keep in mind. For instance, the researchers used people’s self-reported physical activity and exercise habits, rather than measuring them directly. Similarly, this study does not take into account whether different amounts or types of exercise, such as aerobic exercise or strength training, affect memory and thinking in later life. Other studies have reported that aerobic exercise may offer a cognitive benefit.
Even though uncertainty remains regarding how exactly exercise in mid-life affects our memory and thinking in later life, other benefits of exercise are clear. Maintaining heart health, good sleeping patterns, and optimal levels of fat, muscle and bone mass are just some of the proven effects of healthy exercise.
“Although our study had a negative finding, I’d still recommend getting physical exercise if that’s something you do or if it is something you like to do,” says Dr. Gross. “If not, or if your health doesn’t allow you to be physically active, then explore other options like social activities or mentally stimulating challenges.”
Other studies have shown promise in continuing to evaluate the role exercise can play. The FINGER trial in Finland showed that diet and cognitive training (brain games like crossword puzzles, math challenges, word finding exercises) – done together – did seem to slow cognitive decline. And a November 2017 ACTIVE study showed that cognitive training focused on processing speed may reduce the risk of dementia.
The ultimate goal for researchers is to identify lifestyle behaviors that may help people maintain their memory and thinking ability later in life. Check out the Alzheimer’s Prevention Registry for studies that are currently looking to recruit participants – your participation in one of these studies may be the key to identifying those factors.