Workouts may help ward off dementia

KU research finds exercise can protect against Alzheimer’s

Help wanted in exercise clinical trial

Kansas University researchers are looking at the link between aerobic exercise and cognitive function. They are seeking participants for a new clinical trial. Participants must be older than 70, mostly sedentary and cognitively healthy. For more information on the study or to participate, call the Alzheimer’s and Memory Program at (913) 588-0555. The study will be conducted in Johnson County.

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A Kansas University professor is encouraged by research showing that aerobic exercise could stave off the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s disease.

“We know that exercise and fitness avoids major disability, but it also seems to be protective for cognitive function,” said David K. Johnson, assistant professor of psychology and assistant research scientist in gerontology at Kansas University.

Johnson has participated in neuroimaging studies performed by the Alzheimer’s and Memory Program at the KU Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan., and the Neuropsychology and Aging Laboratory at KU’s Lawrence campus. The work, which was funded by the National Institute on Aging, demonstrated the positive effects of aerobic workouts in seniors, regardless of whether they had a cognitive disorder.

Others involved in the research included Dr. Jeffrey Burns, of KU Medical Center, and Joseph Donnelly, director of the Energy Balance Lab.

The researchers have studied about 150 seniors who are between the ages of 65 and 95 for the past five years. The studies have involved memory tests and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) tests.

Johnson said exercise may be the medicine for improving memory.

“Exercise seems to be better than any crossword puzzle or other mental activity by 2 to 3 times at least,” Johnson said.

And, he said, seniors don’t have to be track stars to see the results.

“We are really trying to get people to not be sedentary — to get out and off the couch,” Johnson said. “Most older adults do not lead an active enough lifestyle, so it’s just about increasing that amount of activity and trying to get it so that they walk farther than they currently do and to have a greater ability to walk up the stairs without losing their breath.”

New research

Although promising, research tying cardiovascular health to cognitive function is still in early stages. In a new clinical trial, Johnson hopes to establish a more exact understanding of “dose response.” He aims to determine what forms of aerobic exercise are best for seniors, how much exercise is most helpful and whether there is a point of diminishing returns for an exercise prescription.

KU is seeking seniors ages 70 and older to participate in the new study. They are looking for people who are mostly sedentary, but cognitively healthy.

“We are going to try to increase their aerobic fitness and do some cognitive testing over a period a little longer than a year,” Johnson said.

He added, “If we can help improve cognition while people are healthy, that also would mean a delay in the onset of Alzheimer’s disease in older adults significantly. Hopefully, many years.”

About 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease. Johnson said the illness affects one in 10 people older than age 75, and the prevalence doubles every five years after that. So, it’s 1 in 5 by age 80.

Clinical trial participant

That’s why Betty Rafferty, 80, Shawnee, has participated in KU’s Alzheimer’s study for the past five years and encourages others to follow her footsteps.

“I think it’s beneficial, and I think there has to be some answers because I think Alzheimer’s is becoming more of an epidemic-type thing,” she said. “It seems like more and more people all of the time are having it. A lot of friends of mine have the problem, and I just think it’s really important to do this.”

Rafferty also watched her father suffer.

“My father had dementia, and toward the end of life I felt like maybe it was Alzheimer’s and I saw how awful it was and how frustrated he got.”

After hearing about the studies on a radio show, Rafferty called and offered help. She said the testing requires little time. In the beginning, she went in for testing twice a year, but now it’s only once. It includes MRIs, a lumbar test, a urinalysis and memory tests.

“It is not a lot of time consumed, and the people over there are incredible,” she said. “It honestly gives you just a tremendous feeling of accomplishment and helping. I am just real proud that I am a part of it.”

Rafferty thinks that the clinical trial also has helped improve her memory.

“Personally, I really feel like that my memory is better now than it was before I went over because I am more aware of how to really look at things,” she said. “Instead of thinking, ‘Oh, I can’t remember’ and just quit, now, I really concentrate and bring the memory back.”