More research needed on the effects of exercise on dementia

We all know that taking regular exercise is beneficial to our physical and mental health and wellbeing.

However, when it comes to its effectiveness in delaying the onset of dementia, the research presents a much more mixed picture.

According to the Alzheimers Society website: “Taking regular physical exercise appears to be one of the best things that you can do to reduce your risk of getting dementia.” It notes that several studies on middle aged and older people have shown “improvements in thinking and memory, and reduced rates of dementia”.

It also notes one study on 716 people with an average age of 82 years, those in the bottom 10% of people for taking regular physical activity were twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease as those in the top 10%.

However, in May 2018 The Independent newspaper published the results of a study carried out by Oxford University, which suggested that exercise did not appear to help to delay the progression of dementia in people in the early stages of the disease and in fact could actually speed it up.

While it did not question that keeping active throughout a person’s life could reduce the risk of developing dementia, once the condition was diagnosed, the situation appeared to be different.

The Oxford study, carried out in conjunction with Warwick university, recruited 494 people – with an average age of 77 – from memory clinics across England. They assigned 329 to the exercise programme and 165 were designated to receive normal care.

A test of cognitive impairment carried out after 12 months showed average impairment had increased to 25.2 in the group given exercise, compared to 23.8 in the control group.

Of course, this is just one study, and in any case of the risk factors, physical inactivity only accounts for 2.6% of the risk according to the Lancet Commission on Dementia Prevention, Intervention and Care (LCDPIC).

Clearly, more research is needed before there can be definitive answers, but that is not to suggest that there are no benefits to physical activity for the elderly with or without the condition.

Regular activity helps to improve the health of the heart and blood vessels, thereby reducing the risk of heart attacks and high blood pressure. It helps to keep the muscles and joints supple and flexible enabling people to carry out their daily tasks such as washing, dressing, cooking and cleaning more easily.

It can also help to keep the brain and memory active so that the elderly can continue to interact with other people and therefore reduce the risk of depression and social isolation.