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Can Aerobic Exercise and Environmental Enrichment Slow Alzheimer's Disease?

Posted Mar 23 2013 11:18am
Aerobic exercise and “environmental enrichment” stimulate the hippocampus, the same area of the brain that is most impaired by Alzheimer’s disease.

By Max Wallack
Alzheimer's Reading Room

Can Aerobic Exercise and Environmental Enrichment Slow Alzheimer's Disease?Mighty Mouse
The benefits of aerobic activities for those with Alzheimer’s has been accepted for some time. Improving oxygen flow to the brain is good for us all.

Bob has told us many times how much more alert and “more there” Dotty was each time she emerged from the gym, even though Dotty had never gone to the gym until her late 80’s.

A new research article ( Li et Al, 2013 ) is showing that, perhaps, Dotty improved so greatly from her trips to the gym were not despite the fact that she didn't start until her late 80’s, but because of that fact.


In this study, scientists who were already providing wild mice with a running wheel for exercise, decided to add a novel toy or object to explore to their cage each day. The results were amazing. While the mice doing aerobic exercise were less impaired when injected with amyloid beta from Alzheimer’s patients, those mice who were given the novel toys each day were significantly less impaired than those with the aerobic exercise alone.

Could it be that the novelty of going to the gym every day had a significant effect upon Dotty, above and beyond the exercise factor?

It looks like that is a very real possibility. We all know and have accepted the fact that following a familiar routine is best for those with Alzheimer’s disease. However, research shows that it is also important to add something novel to the daily routine.

Dotty’s trips to the Banana Boat were even more than getting into the bright light and socializing with those she knew. Meeting new people may have also been very good for her.

Now, I think back to our many trips with Great Grams. We took her everywhere with us. It was as if we continued to live our lives normally and included her, even when she was greatly impaired. I never really considered the fact that our trip to Hawaii, where she was amazed seeing, for the first time in her life, pineapples and bananas growing, may actually have slowed down her disease a bit. Perhaps my own life, bringing her along to weekly taekwondo sessions, provided beneficial novel experiences for her.

In the research paper, it states that “environmental enrichment” stimulates the hippocampus, the same area that is most impaired by Alzheimer’s disease. This meshes well with my convictions that puzzles of various kinds can be therapeutic. (By now, over 20,000 puzzles have been distributed around the world .)

So, along with a predictable, daily, comfortingly familiar schedule, we should also try to work in at least one novel experience daily. It can be a puzzle, a trip, a new story, coloring, or painting. It doesn't matter. What matters is the new experiences. And, of course, adding it to an aerobic activity reaps the most benefits.

Have your worked aerobic exercise into your daily caregiving routine? How about "environmental enrichment"?

Are you doing anything that seems to make the person living with dementia "more there", or happier?

If so tell us about it.
Max Wallack is a student at Boston University and a Research Intern in the Molecular Psychiatry and Aging Laboratory in the Department of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics at Boston University School of Medicine. His great grandmother, Gertrude, suffered from Alzheimer's disease. Max is the founder of PUZZLES TO REMEMBER. PTR is a project that provides puzzles to nursing homes and veterans institutions that care for Alzheimer's and dementia patients.Original content the Alzheimer's Reading Room
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