Other Voices

For Alzheimer’s disease, we can put some hope in an Rx for exercise

Participants take to the trails during a Walk to End Alzheimers event Oct. 8 at Church at the Cross in Grapevine.
Participants take to the trails during a Walk to End Alzheimers event Oct. 8 at Church at the Cross in Grapevine. Special to the Star-Telegram

I know local gyms, including mine, likely will be packed this month with newcomers resolved to improve their health.

Some gym regulars roll their eyes at all the Johnny-come-latelies and their New Year’s resolutions — but not me.

As an Alzheimer’s disease researcher at the UNT Health Science Center in Fort Worth, I know that regular exercise is important, not just for weight control and cardiovascular health, but also for brain health.

We’ve known for some time that exercise improves brain performance.

We now think that it also may delay or even prevent memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

Such insight is crucial in the battle against this pitiless disease.

More than 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s, a figure that is expected to triple in the next 30 years, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It’s the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States, and the only one among the top nine that can’t be cured, prevented or effectively slowed.

The Food and Drug Administration has approved just four medications for Alzheimer's disease since 2000.

All four treat the symptoms of the disease but do not address its basic underlying biology.

Despite spending billions of dollars over the past 16 years, we’ve yet to hit upon effective therapies. It’s past time for new strategies.

I’m hopeful about a new, federally funded Alzheimer’s study underway at more than a dozen universities around the country, including one in Texas, Fort Worth’s UNT Health Science Center.

The end goal for this study: To help determine whether physicians could one day write a prescription, not for drugs, but for specific amounts and types of exercise that could help patients keep their brains healthy.

We’re pairing personal trainers from the YMCA of Metropolitan Fort Worth with older people who have been diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, are otherwise in good health but are not currently exercising regularly.

We’ll look at the effects of exercise on cognition, brain atrophy, blood flow and biomarkers such as cerebrospinal fluid.

There are positive aspects to exercise — especially for older people — beyond the obvious health benefits.

There is a social element that keeps people engaged and reduces the risk of depression.

Exercise also literally makes people happy.

Your brain has a physiological response to exercise, releasing endorphins that make you feel good.

Call it an Rx for exercise.

We’ve got reason to believe that this non-invasive, non-pharmaceutical approach with no known drawbacks and plenty of known benefits will prove valuable in the battle against Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia.

Hitting the gym can do wonders for the health of your brain — and perhaps prevent or delay Alzheimer’s-related dementia.

The research is not yet conclusive, but the evidence is mounting.

Sid O’Bryant is a professor in the Center for Alzheimer’s and Neurodegnerative Disease Research at UNT Health Science Center in Fort Worth.