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Most Fit Have Less Brain Atrophy From Alzheimer's

Even moderate exercise, done regularly, improves quality of life

SUNDAY, July 27 (HealthDay News) -- Physical fitness can help the mind, body and quality of life of people with early Alzheimer's disease and dementia, according to new research.

"These studies reinforce the need for increased awareness and education about the importance of living a brain-healthy lifestyle, including staying physically active," William Thies, vice president of medical and scientific relations for the Alzheimer's Association, said in a news release. "Growing evidence shows that physical exercise does not have to be strenuous or require a major time commitment. It is most effective when done regularly, and in combination with a brain-healthy diet, mental activity and social interaction."

The two studies were expected to be presented Sunday at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference on Alzheimer's Disease in Chicago.

In the first study, MRI brain imaging of people taking a treadmill stress test showed a connection between cardio-respiratory fitness and Alzheimer's-related brain changes in the hippocampus, an area of the brain important for memory and spatial navigation. The hippocampus is one of the first regions of the brain to suffer damage from Alzheimer's.

"We found that, in early-stage Alzheimer's, cardio-respiratory fitness is correlated with regional brain volumes in key areas affected by the disease," study researcher Robyn Honea of the University of Kansas Medical Center, in Kansas City, said in the news release. "This suggests that maintaining cardio-respiratory fitness may positively modify Alzheimer's-related brain atrophy."

In the second study, researchers from Western Medicine in Nedlands, Australia, showed that a caregiver-driven, home-based exercise program could reduce falls, improve balance and maintain the quality of life in people with dementia over a 12-month period.

The program centered on increasing good balance, which has been previously shown to have the greatest impact on reducing falls. Caregivers were taught a tailored set of exercises and were taught how to prompt their loved ones to do them by incorporating them in everyday routines.

According to the researchers, people with dementia fall up to three times more than those who have no cognitive impairment.

In the first six months, patients in the exercise program fell significantly less often than those in a control group. Those doing the exercises also improved their balance over 12 months, while the control group showed some deterioration in their balance over this time.

People in the exercise group also showed no significant increase in fear of falling over 12 months, while the usual care group became more fearful -- a key factor affecting the person's quality of life.

"As people become increasingly affected by the changes in their memory and thinking, and as the risk of falls becomes greater, quality of life can deteriorate," study researcher Megan Wraith said in a conference-issued news release. "This study is small and is just a beginning, but maintaining quality of life at the same level in the context of deteriorating cognitive abilities is an achievement. The results are sufficiently encouraging to pursue this approach and develop a caregiver focused home-based exercise program on a larger scale."

More information

The National Institute on Aging has more about caring for someone with Alzheimer's disease.

-- Kevin McKeever

SOURCE: Alzheimer's Association, news release, July 27, 2008

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