In a new study, researchers found that higher levels of daily physical activity may protect against cognitive decline and brain damage from Alzheimer’s disease.
The team also found that healthy blood vessels may offer additional protection against Alzheimer’s and delay progression of the disease.
The research was conducted by a team from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH).
The pathophysiological process of Alzheimer’s disease begins decades before symptoms emerge. It is characterized by an early accumulation of b-amyloid protein in the brain.
In the new study, the team examined physical activity in 182 normal older adults, including those with elevated b-amyloid who were judged at high risk of cognitive decline.
All participants had hip-mounted pedometers which counted the number of steps walked during the course of the day.
They found that greater physical activity not only had positive effects on slowing cognitive decline but also on slowing the brain tissue loss over time in normal people who had high levels of amyloid plaque in the brain.
The beneficial effects were seen at even modest levels of physical activity but were most prominent at around 8,900 steps, which is only slightly less than the 10,000 many of us strive to achieve daily.
This finding suggests that physical activity might reduce b-amyloid (Ab)-related cortical thinning and preserve gray matter structure in regions of the brain.
The study is one of the first that shows the protective effects of physical activity and vascular risk management in the “preclinical stage” of Alzheimer’s disease.
At this stage, there is an opportunity to intervene prior to the onset of substantial neuronal loss and clinical impairment.
The team also found that reducing vascular problems along with physical exercise have added health benefits.
Vascular problems can be caused by obesity, smoking, and high blood pressure.
The researchers say that beta-amyloid and tau protein build-up certainly set the stage for cognitive impairment in later age.
But there are steps people can take now to reduce the risk going forward. Future work needs to help develop preventive treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.
The lead author of the study is Jennifer Rabin, Ph.D., now at the University of Toronto, Sunnybrook Research Institute.
The study is published in JAMA Neurology.
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