By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
Alzheimer’s is an incurable degenerative disease of the brain. However, people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s can benefit from exercise.
A growing body of research indicates that in addition to offering some protective advantages, regular exercise can also slow the disease’s progression for those who have been diagnosed.
A 2022 study indicates that exercise helps promote the level of a brain-protective protein that can delay onset of Alzheimer’s and other dementias and slow the progression of the disease in those diagnosed.
The study’s author, Kaitlin Casaletto, is an assistant professor of neurology in the Memory and Aging Center at the University of California San Francisco, said that other studies show physical activity lowers the chances of dementia by 30% to 80% but researchers still don’t know exactly why except that it may have to do with synaptic functioning.
“There has been research that shows exercise is the number one thing we can do for supporting brain health, for preventing disease and those diagnosed seem to do better when they exercise,” said Sharon Brangman, chairwoman of geriatric medicine, director of the geriatric medicine fellowship program and director of the Upstate Center of Excellence for Alzheimer’s Disease at SUNY Upstate Medical University. “We don’t know all the details yet and it doesn’t keep the disease from progressing, but it can help you function at the highest cognitive level you can.”
She said that regular exercise helps increase circulation. Because nerve growth factors exist in the bloodstream and exercise helps take this to the brain to make new nerve connections.
“There are a lot of benefits of taking a walk,” she said. “I encourage patients to get up every hour and walk a few loops around their house. Pick the parking spot a distance from the store. If you can handle stairs, use them instead of the elevator. Think of little ways of adding motion and walking into your daily routine.”
She recommends mall walking to patients once the weather turns icy or if they don’t have a safe neighborhood in which to walk.
“Exercise is probably the number one thing you could do to maintain your overall health,” Brangman added.
Body condition can decline with people who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. To battle this effect, Mary Koenig, administrator of The Heritage Memory Life Community at Loretto and board member of The Alzheimer’s Association of CNY, encourages people to exercise, including strength training.
“Strengthening muscles is good for balance and mobility problems,” Koenig said. “It can help promote a normal day or night routine that can help when people get days and nights mixed up. It’s difficult for them and their caregivers. It can help with sleep and mood. It can in some cases decrease the need for behavior modifying medications.”
She also referenced studies indicating that exercise can slow the rate of decline and improve comorbidities like obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
“When diagnosed with dementia, you’re at an increased risk for falls,” Koenig said. “Anything to help with bone density is good, like weight bearing exercise. Strength building and yoga for flexibility helps decrease falls too.”
Of course, what a person does depends upon their physical condition and interests. Following a typical workout may not be feasible for someone with advanced dementia. But at any stage, finding enjoyable activities that increase movement, build strength and maintain balance are helpful in maintaining independence longer. Activities that include a body-mind connection, like ballroom dancing or tai chi may prove particularly beneficial.