Harvard Women's Health Watch

Vigorous exercise may counter cognitive decline in early Alzheimer's

Reports at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference in July 2015 verified that women are at higher risk than men for developing Alzheimer's, and also progress more rapidly from mild cognitive impairment to out-right dementia than men do. But not all the news was bad. A study reported at the meeting indicates that physical exercise can halt, and even reverse, the decline in people with mild cognitive impairment.

In that study, conducted by researchers at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, 65 previously sedentary women and men with mild cognitive impairment exercised at peak capacity for at least 45 minutes four times a week for six months. At the beginning and end of the study, researchers tested participants' cognitive skills and examined their blood and cerebrospinal fluid for levels of tau protein—a principal component of the amyloid plaques associated with Alzheimer's disease. They found that the participants scored significantly higher on the cognitive tests at the end of the study than they had at the beginning. Their tau protein levels had declined substantially as well.

The results indicate that aerobic exercise is more effective than any currently approved medication in fore-stalling Alzheimer's disease. Given women's increased risk for Alzheimer's, it behooves all of us to exercise as vigorously and as regularly as is deemed safe for our health. If you have any doubts about your exercise capacity, talk to your doctor.