Mind and Body

Active lifestyle cuts risk of Alzheimer’s at any age, study finds

Couple walking outdoors with walking stick


A new study supports the theory that daily physical exercise may dramatically reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, even in people over the age of 80.

The study of 716 people, with an average age of 82, found that those who were the least physically active were more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s than those who were the most active.  

The study differed from others in that it didn’t intervene in participants’ lives with exercise programs or ask them to self-report their activities over a long period of time; rather, it looked at daily activity levels of elderly people, suggesting that even if people hadn’t been active their entire lives, leading a relatively active life in old age could have benefits in staving off the disease.

In addition, the intensity level of activity seemed to produce an effect as well—those who did the least intense activities were almost three times as likely to develop Alzheimer’s as those who did the most intense exercises.

For the study, participants wore a wrist monitor called an actigraph continuously for 10 days.  The actigraph recorded all exercise and non-exercise in 15 second increments.  The participants were also given annual tests that measured memory and thinking abilities over a period of four years.  During the study, 71 of the participants developed Alzheimer’s disease.  All of them agreed to donate their brains for further research after they died.

“Participants wore the actigraph for 24 hours a day, so it measured all the movements made throughout the day,” study author Dr. Aron Buchman, a neuroscientist at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center, Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, told FoxNews.com.  “Every 15 seconds, it would record activity on a little chip.  If you weren’t moving, it would record a zero.”

Buchman added the device could not distinguish between different types of activity, such as a person playing basketball versus a person playing cards—however, if the actigraph continuously recorded movement over 30 minutes or an hour, it suggested the person was doing a more intense exercise.

“The important thing is, since we measured all types of activity, it allowed an interesting perspective that even among older people who may not be able to participate in a formal exercise program, a more active lifestyle—even it’s just washing the dishes or walking around inside—is better for you than sitting,” Buchman said.

Buchman said it wasn’t necessary to run a half mile to get benefits.  

“Increasing activity level by 10 to 15 percent could be good as well,” he said.  

Prior research has indicated that physical activity can potentially reverse memory loss and increase brain volume, reducing the damaging effects of aging.  Buchman said participating in cognitive and social activities have also shown similar benefits.

“People who read more, go to church, play Bingo or do crossword puzzles, rather than just sit and vegetate, will derive some benefit,” Buchman said.  “The sum total of all types of activities is not only beneficial for older people, but could also be beneficial for the health care system if they can tailor programs to address the issue of older people who have health issues and may not be able to participate in a formal health care program.”

The study was published in the online issue of Neurology.