Can exercise delay dementia symptoms?

Bruce Erickson smiles while riding a stationary bicycle.

After reading studies that showed aerobic exercise can improve cognition in healthy adults, School of Nursing researcher Fang Yu wondered how exercise could affect people with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.

For the last 15 years, Yu has been exploring that question from a variety of perspectives. She thinks non-pharmacological treatments, including exercise, hold promise for slowing the progression of the disease.

Yu initially conducted pilot studies to determine exercise protocols, and those studies suggested that exercise could delay cognitive decline. She was then awarded $3.4 million from the National Institute on Aging to conduct a trial to determine both the immediate and mid-term cognitive effects of exercise on people with Alzheimer’s disease. With that study underway, Yu also undertook a five-year, $3.8 million study investigating the effects of aerobic exercise coupled with cognitive training in participants with mild cognitive impairment.

Yu was surprised to discover that people who have Alzheimer’s disease generally are physically deconditioned; their aerobic fitness level is much lower than peers without the disease. But they are able to safely do aerobic exercise and do it really well, she says, with great gains in physical stamina. She’s also heard anecdotally from caregivers that the exercise has led to improved attitude, more confidence, and better relationships for the study participants.

Bruce Erickson hopes the scans and the other data collected about him help others understand the disease better, but he already knows he benefitted from the exercise program.

“The exercise gave me new energy and more vitality,” said Erickson, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease 14 years ago. “It’s not for me, as much as for the future—for our siblings, for our grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.”

“There is so much promise in non-pharmacological treatments, like exercise and cognitive training,” adds Yu. “Ultimately, I want people with cognitive impairment to live longer in the community, with a better quality of life.”