Over the past several years, there have been numerous studies on physical activity and how it affects patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.  Last month, Harvard Medical School announced the results of a study finding that physical exercise helps to “clean up” inflamed areas of the brain that affect cognitive function.

This, in turn, allows the production of new neurons and the formation of synapses, which can help to improve cognition.  Another article, published in January in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, also reported that moderate exercise can help delay and even prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s.

On the other hand, other studies have been finding just the opposite.  This past May, a study out of Oxford University found that people suffering from mild to moderate dementia actually declined at a faster rate when they exercised for 45 minutes twice a week.  Commenting on the study, a specialist in geriatric psychiatry said, “I don’t think we should ignore the possibility that exercise might actually be slightly harmful to people with dementia.”

So…which is correct?

It is important to understand that, dementia notwithstanding, engaging in moderate physical exercise 3-5 times a week provides many benefits. It reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, preserves muscle and bone mass and lowers stress levels.  Additionally, most research indicates that physical activity is beneficial to the brain.  Part of this involves improving blood flow, carrying oxygen and glucose to the brain.  Physical activity also releases chemicals such as endorphins, which play a role in protecting brain health.  Some also believe that it slows the natural decline in synapse formation that is part of the aging process.

All of this said, it bears mentioning that association is not the same thing as causation: simply because a research study finds that “A” happens in the presence of “B” does not mean that “B” was the cause of “A.”  It only means that among a certain population, these things are found together.

The nearly 500 subjects who participated in the Oxford study averaged 77 years of age and suffered mild to severe symptoms of Alzheimer’s.  All followed a regimen consisting of twice-weekly 60-90 minute sessions over the course of sixteen weeks, followed by one hour a week at home.  Subjects were assessed prior to the beginning of the program, at six months and one year.  Participants were found to have experienced a decline in cognitive function after variables were taken into consideration.

Commenting on the study, neurologist Dr. Elizabeth Coulhard of the University of Bristol said, “The findings here are in keeping with the thrust of current research that suggests dementia is hard to modify once it is well established.”  However, she also noted that “Physical activity still holds promise to delay dementia onset in people at risk of developing the disease,” adding, “Broadly, physical activity and healthy aging go hand in hand.”

K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.