Physical Exercise Can Worsen Dementia, Says Study

Senior fitness instructor assisting student during outdoor exercise class

Some 5.7 million Americans are living with Alzheimer's, the most common form of the disease. To try and resolve this uncertainty, a team of United Kingdom researchers chose to estimate the effect of a moderate to high intensity aerobic and strength exercise training programme on cognitive impairment and other outcomes in people with dementia. But most of the research in support of that hypothesis has been on animals. The study involved almost 500 people that were divided into two groups.

The team investigated the potential benefits of exercise in a trial involving nearly 500 adults with mild to moderate dementia, with an average age of 77-years-old living across the U.K. Published in theBMJ, the study had a larger sample size than previous studies and the team followed up with participants more frequently.

After 12 months, the participants were assessed according to the commonly used Alzheimer's disease assessment score (ADAS-cog), which measures cognitive and rationalizing abilities, as well as outcomes such as their quality of life and number of falls. Each session involved aerobic exercise (30 minutes of moderate- to hard-intensity cycling on a stationary bike) and strength training (various exercises using hand-held weights). They also exercised at home for one hour a week.

The 494 participants were randomly assigned to either the control group (165 people), who continued with all usual care, or the exercise group (329 people), who underwent an exercise programme as well as usual care.

Compliance with exercise was good and participants were assessed again at six and 12 months.

Previous research had suggested that exercise could prevent mental decline, and stave off diseases like Alzheimer's, so experts and charities said they were surprised by the findings.

A surprising study by a team of UK researchers says people with dementia should avoid intense physical activities
A surprising study by a team of UK researchers says people with dementia should avoid intense physical activities

Although in the exercise group, the decline was much steeper, "however, the average difference was small and the clinical relevance was uncertain", told a press statement. But that did not translate into "improvements in cognitive impairment, activities in daily living, behavior, or health-related quality of life", according to British researchers at the University of Oxford.

While physical exercise may keep off dementia, however it does not delay the mental decline in old people after they have been diagnosed, a study conducted 500 people with the condition reported on Thursday (May 17).

The study has several important limitations. But recent reviews of trials of exercise training in people with dementia have shown conflicting results. For example, participants and carers knew which group they were in, and the period of structured exercise may have been too short to produce positive benefits. People who exercise more are less likely to get dementia, possibly because it maintains blood flow to the brain.

"I think it would be fair to say that dementia is a hard problem to fix", she added. Lamb commented that dementia is a complicated issue to tackle.

The disappointing results are a setback for researchers, who had hoped an exercise programme might improve people's ability to carry out everyday tasks such as washing and dressing. "We don't want people to stop what they are doing".

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