By Emily Woodruff
Moderate to intense exercise does not halt or ease the symptoms of dementia in people who have already been diagnosed with the disease, according to a new study.
In fact, people with dementia who enrolled in the four-month exercise program saw their symptoms get worse more quickly than those who did not. The exercise group visited the gym for 60 to 90 minutes twice per week, and also completed one hour of exercise in their homes. The other portion of participants did not exercise or change their normal routines.
When researchers looked at how the 500 participants’ cognitive test scores changed over the four months, they were surprised to see that those in the exercise group performed slightly worse than their original score, and slightly worse than those offered no exercise instruction at all.
“The exercise program might worsen cognitive impairment, although the difference is small and of uncertain performance,” the study authors wrote.
The research, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health, was conducted with the hope that developing an exercise program for people with dementia might help delay symptoms, since other small studies have shown promise and there is currently no other effective treatment.
“The exercise improved physical fitness in the short term, but this did not translate into improvements in activities of daily living, behavioral outcomes, or health-related quality of life,” wrote the researchers. “There is the possibility that the intervention could worsen cognition.”
Researchers said that these results should not stop people from getting exercise, especially gentle activities like walking, and swimming.
“We don’t want to alarm members of the public with dementia and their families. We used a very specialized exercise program. We know that gentle exercise is good for you. We don’t want people to stop what they are doing,” study author Sarah Lamb told The Guardian.
“But if you think of exercise as a drug, it is certainly not worth the NHS investing in that type of treatment for people,” she said.
However, this study doesn’t change the research that shows exercise in early and mid-life for cognitively healthy people seems to be largely beneficial. A study published in March showed that women who are more physically fit in middle age were 88 percent less likely to develop dementia. And the simple act of jogging can help protect the hippocampus, the brain’s memory center. And just a few days before the disappointing results of this study were published, scientists at Union College found that an activity dubbed “exergaming”—playing video games that also require exercise, like Nintendo Wii—significantly improved cognitive function in adults with Mild Cognitive Impairment, which is often the first sign of Alzheimer’s.
The cognitive decline was tiny enough in this particular study that it was probably not noticeable in everyday life, but it was statistically significant, according to researchers. The search for lifestyle changes to improve the lives of those who already have dementia continues.
This study was published in the journal BMJ.