Saying “Alzheimer’s disease” out loud can evoke an emotional response among many people.

Why is this so powerful? Most of us have one or more family members or friends who are afflicted with this cruel disease. The statistics are staggering. Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S., and it contributes significantly to disability. From 2000 to 2015, death certificates show an increase of almost 125 percent naming Alzheimer’s as the cause of death.

The disease attacks women significantly more often than men. Scientists and doctors are concerned that as our population ages, the number of Alzheimer’s cases will grow along with it. One person in the U.S. develops Alzheimer’s every minute, and this devastating disease cannot be cured or prevented.

A recent study from researchers at Rush University in Chicago may provide some hope for older adults who want to slow or prevent cognitive decline. The take-home message is that exercise helps maintain memory and prevent cognitive losses.

The study involved more than 450 undiagnosed patients who were involved in a project on memory and aging. Patients were given physical exams and extensive cognitive and memory assessments over 20 years of the study. Researchers used personal activity monitors to measure a person’s physical activity 24 hours a day for seven days, allowing a detailed and accurate measurement of movement like walking and exercising. They used this data to calculate a daily activity score, which they compared to the thinking and cognitive assessment scores.

At the end of the study, 191 patients had developed dementia and 263 had not. There was a clear difference in the activity habits between those with dementia and those undiagnosed. The results indicated that those with more daily activity and better motor skills had better cognitive skills. For every significant increase in physical activity, there was a 31 percent less chance of developing dementia.

For each significant increase in daily non-exercise physical activity, there was a 55 percent reduction in dementia observed. Interestingly, this relationship between exercise and cognitive ability was evident in even those showing brain alteration consistent with dementia. Because of their higher activity levels, these patients avoided the worst of the symptoms they would have otherwise had. Overall, the study has shown a clear link between exercise and cognitive abilities as people age.

While this study provides important information about exercise and cognitive decline, there are still questions to answer. Does physical activity prevent or slow mental decline, or do people stop exercising as they lose brain functions? What type of physical activity is best? Is it better to exercise consistently over a lifetime, or can individuals still benefit with increased activity later in life?

This study could be a wake-up call to maintain or start a physical activity program, no matter what your age. It could provide some protection from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, and even save your life. Exercise is certainly a low-cost method to improve your health and prevent this cruel disease.

Medical Discovery News is hosted by professors Norbert Herzog at Quinnipiac University, and David Niesel of the University of Texas Medical Branch. Learn more at

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