Researchers prescribe exercise as if it were a medication in a study that aims to see if it can prevent Alzheimer’s disease.
“We are evaluating whether exercise is a medicine for people with a mild memory problem,” says Laura Baker, principal investigator of the nationwide EXERT study and associate director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at the Wake Forest School of Medicine. .
The study, funded by the National Institute on Aging, could help determine whether exercise can protect people from memory and thinking problems associated with Alzheimer’s.
“Scientific evidence has been accumulating over the past 20 years to suggest that exercise at the right intensity could protect brain health as we get older,” Baker says.
But much of that evidence comes from studies that were small, were published only for a few months, or were based on people’s estimates of how much they exercised.
The EXERT study is different. He is taking 300 people at high risk of Alzheimer’s and randomly assigning them to one of two groups for 18 months.
Half of the participants do aerobic exercise, such as running on a treadmill. The other half does stretching exercises and flexibility to compare.
The approach is very similar to that used by pharmaceutical companies to test new medicines. Except in this study, participants go to the local YMCA to take their medications.
To qualify for the EXERT study, participants must be between 65 and 89 years old and not participate in regular exercises. They also must have mild cognitive impairment, a type of memory loss that often precedes Alzheimer’s.
As part of the study, participants undergo memory and thinking tests. They also have tests to control blood flow in the brain, brain atrophy and levels of toxic proteins associated with Alzheimer’s.
All the data will help make the study results final, says Howard Feldman, professor of neuroscience at the University of California at San Diego and director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Cooperative Study, a consortium that oversees the EXERT study.
“We will not only understand if the intervention helps people in a clinical outcome, but in fact what the scientific basis is,” says Feldman.
And even if the study does not preserve the memory, he says, the participants benefit from it.