A groundbreaking study by clinicians at the Washington DC Veterans Affairs Medical Center has linked physical fitness to a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, a brain disorder that slowly destroys memory, thinking and reasoning skills .
“The idea that you can reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease simply by increasing your level of fitness is very promising, especially since there is no adequate treatment to prevent or halt the progression of the disease” , said Edward Zamrini, MD, lead author of the study. preliminary study published on February 27, 2022.
The study involved 649,605 veterans who receive care at VA medical centers within the Veterans Health Administration (VHA). The veteran participants were on average 61 years old and none of the participants showed signs of Alzheimer’s disease at the start of the study. Participants were followed, on average, for nine years.
As part of the study, all participants took a treadmill exercise test to measure how well their bodies transport oxygen to their muscles and how well their muscles absorb oxygen during exercise. The participants were divided into five groups based on their level of fitness. The group with the highest fitness level had an energy expenditure equivalent to about two hours of walking or cycling per week.
The group with the lowest fitness level developed Alzheimer’s disease at a rate of 9.5 cases per 1,000 person-years, and in the fittest group there were 6.5 cases per 1,000 person-years. Person-years take into account the number of people participating in a study and the time they spent on it. The rate of Alzheimer’s disease cases decreased as the fitness level increased.
When the researchers adjusted for other factors that may affect Alzheimer’s risk, they found that people in the fittest group were 33% less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than those in the least fit group. in shape. The second fittest group was 26% less likely to develop the disease, while the middle group was 20% less likely and those in the second least fit group were 13% less likely to develop the disease than those in the lowest group. less fit.
What makes the results so exciting, Zamrini said, is that participants in each group above the least fit saw some decrease in their risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. “It wasn’t an all-or-nothing proposition,” he explained. “People can work towards making gradual changes and improvements in their physical fitness and hopefully this will be associated with a related decrease in their risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease years later.”
Study co-author and DC VA Medical Center chief of staff Charles Faselis, MD, said, “This research is important because Alzheimer’s disease has become a pressing issue in the health of veterans, and these results, along with ongoing research, will provide clinicians with the information needed to prescribe safe exercise programs to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.
“To help veterans prevent the development of Alzheimer’s disease, the research team is using explainable artificial intelligence technology to turn their findings into a formula that can be individualized to show the benefits that small increases in activity can bring,” said Qing Zeng, PhD, the study’s principal investigator and co-director of the Center for Data Science and Outcomes Research at the Washington DC VA Medical Center.
“There are 1,440 minutes in a day. We can all find 30 minutes to walk briskly to prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Prevention is always better than treatment,” said Peter Kokkinos, PhD, director of human performance and cardiometabolic health unit at Washington DC VA Medical Center.
While Alzheimer’s disease takes years to develop, symptoms are seen in 95% of patients after the age of 65. However, some studies have suggested that Alzheimer’s disease begins in patients before symptoms are spotted. Therefore, DC VA Medical Center clinicians included 101,856 veteran participants with a baseline age between 39 and 49 years. Additionally, the study included 36,000 female veteran participants and statistical analysis showed no interaction between gender and fitness level.
Although the participants in this study are all veterans, the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease among veterans is no higher than that of the general population. New evidence from studies suggests that fitness and activity improve cognition to include thinking, reasoning and comprehension. Fitness and physical activity can lessen the effect of other risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease such as coronary heart disease, stroke, hypertension, depression, insomnia and others by improving blood flow, neuronal connectivity and brain volume.
Veterans who want to establish a fitness plan for overall health and well-being can speak with their VA primary care provider.
The study is supported by an NIA/NIH grant and will be presented at the 74th Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Neurology, April 2-7, 2022. The study’s other co-authors are Yan Cheng, PhD; Helen Sheriff, MD; Yijun Shao, Ph.D.; and Linda Redd with the Washington DC VA Medical Center and George Washington University, Washington, DC.