Physical activity could be key to reducing Alzheimer's

Written by Antonio Cano on 16 June 2014 in News

Research suggests that exercise could have a significant effect on the prevention of Alzheimer's disease, Antonio Cano explains.

Alzheimer's disease, together with mild cognitive impairment, is expected to attain epidemic dimensions in developed countries in the future. Data from the US show that the number of affected individuals will multiply almost by three times between 2010 and 2050.

Alzheimer's is a devastating disease that ruins the life of the affected subjects and that of their relatives. Moreover, national health services will be subjected to a difficult stress test of being able to cope with the expenses involved in medication and care. Despite intensive research in the field, the availability of drugs with potential for prevention or treatment seems distant at the moment, but is that really the case? Can we take effective measures against the disease? Recent epidemiological research and new technology may possibly provide answers.

The impact of regular exercise on susceptibility to Alzheimer's has been discussed in recent years. Data, however, have not been consistent, possibly because the self-reported level of exercise is subjected to many inaccuracies in older people. Furthermore, the exercise itself does not include the more general physical activity concept, in which daily activities are better reflected.

New technology in the form of devices capable of tracking the whole physical activity has revolutionised the area. A prospective study has followed 716 older individuals free of dementia for four years within the Rush memory and ageing project in the US. The participants were subjected to a battery of 19 cognitive tests. Exercise and non-exercise physical activity was recorded continuously for up to 10 days with actigraphy, a technology developed by Philips healthcare. The impressive result after four years was that daily physical activity was associated with a reduction of about 50 per cent in incident Alzheimer's cases.

This information adds to a wealth of data implicating physical activity in the reduction of the impact of other chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular, osteoporosis, or cancer. This conclusion fits particularly well with the European innovation partnership for active and healthy ageing (EIP-AHA) launched by the European commission.

Several groups across Europe are developing commitments where alternatives to warrant compliance to the physical activity programmes are being tested. The cohort chronic ailment reduction after menopause (CARMEN) in Valencia, Spain, is introducing new technologies, based upon internet and electronic devices, to extend the use of physical activity.

"Despite intensive research in the field, the availability of drugs with potential for prevention or treatment [of Alzheimer's] seems distant at the moment"

This cohort concentrates in women, who experience a specific profile in susceptibility to disease, including AD. Additionally, the empowerment of the participants through non-profit women's associations, together with the interest of the municipality, is developing a social network of mutual support that is becoming particularly cost-effective.

There are also a bunch of groups within the cognitive decline subgroup of the A3-Frailty in EIP-AHA. Academia, public health services, research institutes, and SMEs are represented in an initiative aiming at extending the practice of effective preventive measures and at progressing in better knowledge of the disease.

The European parliament can help by promoting legislative changes to help those sections of society that are sensitive to the problem and have demonstrated enough versatility and motivation. Cost-effectiveness is another feature, in part because of the frequent implication of volunteers. Moreover, these movements can be found across the European countries.

About the author

Antonio Cano is professor of obstetrics and gynecology department of pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology university of Valencia


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