Exercise doesn’t slow cognitive decline

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Moderate to high intensity exercise does not slow cognitive (mental) impairment in older people with dementia, according to new research.

The research team found that although exercise improved physical fitness, it cannot be recommended as a treatment option for cognitive impairment in dementia.

Nearly 47.5 million people worldwide have dementia and the view that exercise might slow cognitive decline has widespread popularity.

But recent reviews of trials of exercise training in people with dementia show conflicting results. To try and resolve the uncertainty, researchers decided to estimate the effect of a moderate to high intensity aerobic and strength exercise training program on cognitive impairment and other outcomes in people with dementia.

The trial involved 494 people with mild to moderate dementia (average age 77 years) living in 15 regions of England.

The researchers assessed general health and fitness at the start of the study and randomly assigned participants to either a supervised exercise and support program (329 patients) or to usual care (165 patients).

The program consisted of 60-90 minute group sessions in a gym twice a week for four months, plus home exercises for one additional hour each week with ongoing support.

The primary outcome was an Alzheimer’s disease assessment score (ADAS-cog) at 12 months. Other outcomes included activities of daily living, number of falls, and quality of life.

Compliance with exercise was good and the researchers assessed participants again at six and 12 months. After taking account of potentially influential factors, the findings showed that cognitive impairment declined over the 12-month follow-up in both groups.

The exercise group showed improved physical fitness in the short term, but higher ADAS-cog scores at 12 months (25.2 v 23.8) compared with the usual care group, indicating worse cognitive impairment. However, the average difference was small and clinical relevance was uncertain.

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The researchers found no differences in secondary outcomes, including number of falls and quality of life, or after further analyses to test the strength of the results.

The study did have limitations, the researchers say. For example, participants and caregivers knew which group they were in, and the period of structured exercise may have been too short to produce positive benefits. However, strengths over previous trials included a substantially larger sample size and high levels of follow-up.

“This trial suggests that people with mild to moderate dementia can engage and comply with moderate to high intensity aerobic and strengthening exercise and improve physical fitness,” says Sarah Lamb, professor of rehabilitation at Warwick Clinical Trials Unit at the University of Warwick.

“These benefits do not, however, translate into improvements in cognitive impairment, activities in daily living, behavior, or health related quality of life.”

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The researchers say future trials should explore other forms of exercise, and that investigators should consider the possibility that some types of exercise intervention might worsen cognitive impairment.

Researchers from the University of Oxford contributed to the study, which appears in BMJ.

Source: University of Warwick