As I left a meeting, a charming lady stopped me, “I never miss reading your fitness blog and there’s a lecture you must hear, ’The Brain and Exercise.’ It’s free, at University of California, Irvine, April 19th.”
If you tell me you read my blog, I’ll do anything you say. So, I showed up at UCI MIND’s lecture series with Dr. Laura Baker, Wake Forest School of Medicine, speaking on “Exercise for the Brian: Is it Worth the Sweat?”
Introducing Dr. Baker, Dr. Carl Cotman, Founder of UCI MIND almost gave away the answer, but not quite. First, he told us that The US Centers for Disease Control recommend 150 minutes of exercise weekly, but people 20 to 29 get less than 30 minutes and those in their 80’s get a paltry 15. “Sitting is the new smoking,” he said, describing Americans’ 50-year-decline in active lifestyle.
“Exercise lowers risk for heart disease, cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, improves blood flow, mood and reduces stress,” he reminded us.
But Dr. Laura Baker’s study demonstrated that there’s even more than the above oft-listed-physiological benefits. To show us the “brain benefit,” she assembled seventy-one sedentary adults, 55-89, all of whom were diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment (MCI.)
MCI is described as memory problems greater than normal age-related failure to recall.
Although not all people diagnosed with MCI, progress to Alzheimer’s, the progress is tragic for those who do, with loss of brain cells, severe shrinkage of the brain, together with characteristic plaques and tangles. And with those losses comes greatly diminished ability to care for oneself.
“Not a single drug is effective in stopping or slowing the progressive nature of the disease,” Dr. Baker told us.
But guess what! Dr. Baker’s study found something that is effective. Her PACE Study divided a carefully matched group, all of whom had high likelihood of progressing to Alzheimer’s, into two subgroups.
Both exercised 45-60 minutes four times a week for six months. One group received classes in stretching. The other had aerobic training with a personal trainer at a gym. The aerobic group exercised at 70-80% of maximum heart rate while the stretching group exercised below 35 percent.
Dr. Baker described the results at the end of six months. Participants had spinal taps analyzing their cerebrospinal fluid, indicating the presence of a protein marker for the tangles associated with Alzheimer’s.’ The protein decreased with exercise, showing a decline in the tangles.
Dr. Baker emphasized, “No study with medication has been able to decrease the protein marker associated with Alzheimer’s.”
In the exercise group, scans revealed brain volume increase rather than expected further brain shrinkage. The parietal lobe, frontal lobe and hippocampus increased in size, together with “key areas that connect these three.” The gains in brain weight affect “executive function,” that is ability to plan, initiate, multitask, and focus.
“This is real,” said Dr. Baker, “and dose is important.” Dose in exercise means exercising at 70-80% of maximum heart rate four times a week for 45 minutes to an hour.
Participants in the stretching group probably benefited in flexibility and balance, but tangles in their brains increased, brain weight decreased and their dementia progressed.
In the exercise group, possibly increased blood flow to the brain’s memory and processing centers accompanying hi-intensity activity, caused the gains.
Dr. Frank La Ferla, Dean of the School of Biological Sciences and Director of UCI MIND’s prestigious Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, says that the incidence of Alzheimer’s doubles every five years after 65, so that after 85 about half of us will have Alzheimer’s.
None of us wants to be counted in that number. What we want in our senior years is independence, continued ability to care for ourselves, maintaining as much of the cognitive essence of our personalities as possible.
If a pill would accomplish reversal of dementia’s progress, people would take it.
WE DO NOT HAVE A PILL.
Dr. Baker prescribes a timed dose of vigorous activity as medication. She has research to show it works.
She has evidence that forty-five to sixty minutes of aerobic exercise at 70-80% of maximum heart beat seems to reverse the progressive nature of dementia. I suspect you agree that in order to hold off the progress of Alzheimers, exercise is definitely worth the sweat.
Carrie Luger Slayback is a 73-year-old runner with many “firsts” to her credit including LA Marathon 2014, 2015, Carlsbad Marathon, 2016 and the Long Beach Half Marathon, 2016. She was an award winning teacher who lives with her husband in Newport Beach. Find her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Google at carrielugerslayback daily pilot.