Can Exercise Reduce Your Risk of Alzheimer’s Dementia?

What You Need to Know: Exercise may help keep the brain robust among people who have an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, according to an inspiring new study. Even moderate amounts of physical activity may help to slow the progression of one of the most dreaded diseases associated with aging.

Background: Alzheimer’s disease is characterized by a gradual and then quickening loss of memory and cognitive functioning. All of us are vulnerable. But in recent years, scientists have found that individuals with a specific variant of a gene (known as the APOE epsilon4 allele or e4 gene for short) have a substantially increased risk of developing the disease. Brain imaging shows that a memory center (hippocampus) is considerably shrunken among those with Alzheimer’s disease. But, a previous study published in 2011 showed that exercise can slow progression among those with the e4 gene. What that study did not do, however, was look at brain structure.

The Evidence: Researchers at the Cleveland Clinic (Ohio, USA) recruited almost 100 older men and women, ages 65 to 89, many of whom had a family history of Alzheimer’s disease. At the study start, about have the population was found to carry the e4 gene. None showed signs of memory loss beyond what would be expected to be normal for their age.

  • Investigators asked the volunteers how often and intensely they exercised. About half didn’t move at all. But the other half walked, jogged, or otherwise exercised moderately a few times every week.
  • The researchers then did brain scans on the participants. Eighteen months later, they repeated the scan. In this short interval, those with the e4 gene who did not exercise had significant shrinkage of their hippocampus (memory center): It shrank by about 3%. Those who had the e4 gene and regularly exercised had no such shrinkage! Finally those without the e4 gene had little change in the hippocampus. 

My Take: Why not get up and move? I’m Dr. Michael Hunter.

The small print: The material presented herein is informational only, and is not designed to provide specific guidance for an individual. Please check with a valued health care provider with any questions or concerns. As for me, I am a Harvard- , Yale- and UPenn-educated radiation oncologist, and I practice in the Seattle, WA (USA) area. I feel genuinely privileged to be able to share with you. If you enjoyed today’s offering, please consider clicking the follow button at the bottom of this page.

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Reference: Physical activity reduces hippocampal atrophy in elders at genetic risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Front Aging Neurosci 2014; 6: 61.



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Harvard AB Yale MD UPenn Radiation Oncology Radiation Oncologist, Seattle area

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