Alzheimer dementia is a condition that progressively affects the ability to learn, function, and remember. It begins with mild memory lapses and progresses to profound loss of memory and function. In addition to memory and function loss, most also have severe bouts of depression, agitation and anxiety. There is no cure for the disease. Some lifestyle changes have been shown to help manage certain symptoms. Certain medications can also delay the progression of the disease and improve some symptoms.
Researchers wanted to investigate whether a regular, long-term exercise program performed by Alzheimer patients at home or as a group could help manage Alzheimer symptoms. The study, published in Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, found that regular, long-term customized home-based exercise slightly improved the executive function of community-dwelling older people with memory disorders. Executive function skills help adults accomplish tasks such as planning, focusing attention, remembering instructions, and completing multiple tasks with success.
The randomized controlled trial included 210 male and female participants with Alzheimer disease and their spousal caregivers. The participants were randomized to home-based exercise or group-based exercise based on living situation, or a control group that received usual community care for a period of 12 months. Both exercise groups met twice a week for 12 months. Cognitive function (activities that lead to knowledge, such as reasoning, memory, attention, and language) was measured at 3, 6, and 12 months of follow-up. Measurement tests included drawing tests, verbal fluency tests, Clinical Dementia Rating, and Mini-Mental State Examination.
Participants randomized to the home-based exercise scored significantly better executive function than the control group after 12 months. However, all groups continued to decline in other areas that were measured. Other tests looked at verbal fluency and mental status.
A randomized trial is considered the most reliable form of research, but how the research is done will affect its reliability. This trial included a larger number of participants than previous trials that looked at the impact of exercise on Alzheimer disease. However, the study was originally designed to look at physical benefits of exercise not mental benefits so a detailed examination of mental benefits was not available. This may mean benefits were undervalued. It is also important to note that participants consistently exercised to experience positive results and compliance may not be as easy in general population. Still, the benefits are likely to be true, especially since it is backed up with previous studies that have found similar benefits of exercise for adults with dementia.
Although exercise is not a cure for Alzheimer disease, it appears regular, long-term exercise may improve quality of life for patients. In addition to physical benefits, exercise may help reduce symptoms like anxiety and depression and can even help caregivers who join in on the exercise. If you or a loved one has Alzheimer disease, talk to your doctor about the multiple approaches to help manage Alzheimer disease for the one affected and for caregiver.
National Institute on Aging
Alzheimer dementia. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T114193/Alzheimer-dementia. Updated August 27, 2016. Accessed September 19, 2016.
Executive function and self regulation. Harvard University website. Available at: http://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/executive-function/. Accessed September 20, 2016.
Öhman H, Savikko N, et al. Effects of exercise on cognition: The Finnish Alzheimer disease exercise trial: a randomized, controlled trial. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2016 Apr;64(4):731-738. Available at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jgs.14059/pdf. Accessed September 19, 2016.
Last reviewed September 2016 by Michael Woods, MD