Can't Remember What I Forgot

The latest research on memory loss and the aging brain

News Flash: Alzheimer's slowed by...exercise!

At last, a proven, effective, Alzheimer's intervention

 

Okay, the headline is a little facetious, but in fact, the internet is fully of stories today about a study out of the University of Kansas that shows that exercise appears to slow the progression of Alzheimer's. This is, of course, good news, but it's not precisely new news. I write a lot about the effect of aerobic exercise on brain function in my book "Can't Remember What I Forgot," citing a number of studies, some epidemological and others based on brain imaging. The brain imaging studies, undertaken by, among others, Richard Sloan and Scott Small at Columbia, and Fred Gage at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, have shown that aerobic exercise causes new brain cells to grow in the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain that appears to deteriorate first in both normal, age-related memory loss and in AD. Those who exercised the most, showed the biggest gain in cell growth. When the participants in the exercise studies were given memory tests, those who exercised did better at the end of the trial than they had at the beginning, while those who were in the non-exercising control group showed no gain. And, again, those who exercised most, showed the biggest gains.

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These studies did not specifically look at Alzheimer's patients--which is why the Kansas study is significant--but they didn't look at people experiencing "normal" memory loss, either. One of the findings that I write most about in my book is that it looks like within the hippocampus, a different node deteriorates in Alzheimer's that does not deteriorate in normal memory loss. But--and here is the important part--people with AD are also experiencing normal, age-related memory loss, which is to say that while a different node in the hippocampus deteriorates during normal memory loss, it deteriorates in Alzheimer's patients as well. (This is a bit like all squares are rectangles but not all rectangles are squares.) The reason this is important is because it suggests that what is good for slowing or even reversing age-related memory loss is good for both those without a pathological disease like AD, and those with it, so if you can slow down normal memory loss, it helps AD patients, too.

What's really terrific about the exercise news is that exercise costs nothing, has no co-pay, requires no doctor's visits, and has all sorts of secondary benefits. The drug pipeline takes 5 to 10 years. While you're waiting for big pharma to come up with a cure or a palliative or something, lace up your sneakers and go for a walk.

Sue Halpern is scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College and author, most recently, of Can't Remember What I Forgot: The Good News From The Front Lines of Memory Research.

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