April 18, 2012 -- Daily physical activity may reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease and mental decline even in people older than 80, according to a new report in Neurology.
And it's not just walking, running, or other exercises that count. Tasks like washing dishes, cooking, playing cards, and even moving a wheelchair with a person's arms count as physical activity and can help lower risk for Alzheimer's disease.
"This shows there is something we can do now that can be associated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer's disease," says Richard Isaacson, MD. He is an associate professor of clinical neurology and the director of the Alzheimer's division at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. Isaacson reviewed the new findings for WebMD.
Lowering Risk for Alzheimer's Disease With Exercise
Alzheimer's disease is the most common type of dementia. Symptoms including serious memory loss, confusion, and mood changes that develop gradually and worsen with time. According to the Alzheimer's Association, risks for developing Alzheimer's disease include advanced age and family history.
Isaacson has a strong family history of the disease, and he is focused on uncovering ways to prevent its development. The new findings back up the advice Isaacson gives to patients and support what he does in his own life. "I run three or four times a week and just ran a half-marathon," he says. "I also mix it up with cross-training and racquetball and tennis."
In the study, researchers asked 716 older individuals without dementia to wear a device called an actigraph that monitors activity for 10 days. This is one of the study's strong points, as people don't always report activity accurately. Participants were age 82 on average. All physical activity was recorded. Individuals also were also given a battery of mental tests each year to measure memory and thinking abilities.
Active Lifestyle Reduces Dementia Risk
During about 3.5 years of follow-up, 71 people developed Alzheimer's disease. Those who were in the bottom 10% for daily physical activity were more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer's disease as those in the top 10%, the study shows.
According to the new study, all physical activity adds up and makes a difference in risk.
"The results are very novel and should change the way we think about recommendations that we make to older people," says researcher Aron S. Buchman, MD. He is an associate professor of neurological sciences at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
"The fact that an older person may not be able to participate in a formal exercise program is not the end of the discussion," he says. "The walk-away message is that 'active lifestyle' has a much larger definition and includes a whole range of activities."
Everything you do in 24 hours adds up and counts as part of total daily activity. "It is not just walking and running or formal exercise, but older people should be encouraged to make their lifestyle more active," Buchman says. "If you wash dishes or walk a couple of extra stairs, it will add up over the course of a day and will benefit you over the course of time."
Just how exercise may reduce risk of developing Alzheimer's is not known, but in general, what is good for the heart is believed to also be good for the brain.
Sam Gandy, MD, PhD, is the Mount Sinai chair in Alzheimer's disease research at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. He says continued study is needed to see whether activity delays the development of dementia.