By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
Alzheimer’s is an incurable degenerative disease of the brain. However, people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s can benefit from exercise. A growing body of research indicates that in addition to offering some protective advantages, regular exercise can also slow the disease’s progression for those who have been diagnosed.
A 2022 study indicates that exercise helps promote the level of a brain-protective protein that can delay onset of Alzheimer’s and other dementias and slow the progression of the disease in those diagnosed.
The study’s author, Kaitlin Casaletto, an assistant professor of neurology in the Memory and Aging Center at the University of California San Francisco, said that other studies show physical activity lowers the chances of dementia by 30% to 80% but researchers still don’t know exactly why except that it may have to do with synaptic functioning.
“To me, that’s astonishing,” said Heather Henry, physical therapist and clinical director of Genesee Valley Physical Therapy in Penfield, referencing the study. “Exercise of course increases blood flow to the whole body, including to the brain. That increases the volume to the brain. Neurons continue to grow and develop.”
She works with many people who have neurological conditions. They find that regular exercise helps them stay more functional and independent, along with giving them a sense of control, even though they can’t change their diagnosis.
“They also are better at their activities of daily living and have fewer falls,” Henry said.
She recommends for those able to do so to engage in 30 minutes of exercise five days a week, including some aerobic movement, like bicycling, walking or swimming, and some strength training.
“Even small weights can help maintain strength,” she said. “Grip strength is also important. As people fall, they need to be able to grab onto things.”
Jean Sica, certified tai chi instructor, personal trainer and owner of Kokoro Fitness in Rochester, said that exercise like tai chi “offers a body–mind connection. There’s a lot of cross-body activity, which is shown to slow down cognitive decline.”
She added that exercise promotes the growth of the hippocampus. Because the hippocampus is the first area of the brain to evidence Alzheimer’s, it makes sense to support the health of the hippocampus through exercise to slow the progression of the disease.
Many people with Alzheimer’s experience disrupted sleep and emotional stress because of their condition.
“Exercise can reduce stress and help maintain a more regular sleep cycle,” said Molly Greenbaum, doctor of physical therapy and owner and physical therapist at Stronger Today Physical Therapy in Rochester. “Exercise can also help to strengthen muscles, bones, and reduce risk for falls which helps people with dementia to continue to do as much as they can for themselves and stay active within their communities.”
Of course, what a person does depends upon their physical condition and interests. Following a typical workout may not be feasible for someone with advanced dementia. But at any stage, “it’s important to find activities they enjoy doing like going for a walk to look at birds, dancing to their favorite music, and participating in light household chores,” Greenbaum said. “Involving caregivers and other family members can help. It can seem less like work and more like quality time together.”