Exercise improves cognitive function in ‘win-win’ study

By Jeff Carlton

Sheila and Ron Jack
Sheila Jack (pictured with her husband, Ron) found the exercise study to be beneficial for both herself and future patients.

Sheila Jack referred to it as her “disconnect”– those odd moments when she’d try and fail to remember the name of an old friend who was speaking to her. Or those times, when sitting at her computer, she would forget how to work the same software program she had been using for a decade.

“I would look at the screen and say to myself, ‘Now what do I do?’” said Mrs. Jack, 66. “I’d have to get up and walk around, and I’d think to myself, ‘Sheila, what is wrong with you?’

“My mother has Alzheimer’s disease, and I knew I definitely had some sort of disconnect.”

Mrs. Jack learned her symptoms were signs of mild cognitive impairment (MCI), which causes a slight but noticeable decline in cognitive functions such as memory and thinking skills. The declines typically are significant enough to be noticed by those experiencing them but tend not to interfere with daily life or independence.

Thanks to a local newspaper story, the Plano grandmother learned about and eventually enrolled in an exercise study jointly run by the Alzheimer’s Disease Center at UT Southwestern and Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas. The study, which is designed for people with MCI, creates an individually tailored exercise program for each participant. Researchers examine the effects of exercise on cognitive and cardiovascular health and study changes in proteins that damage or protect brain cells.

Individuals with MCI often are at increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias, said Dr. Mary Quiceno, Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurotherapeutics who directs the Education and Outreach Core of the Alzheimer’s Disease Center. But following the adage that what’s good for the heart is good for the brain, researchers are learning that exercise is a likely deterrent for dementia disorders, Dr. Quiceno said.

For example, a 2012 investigation by UT Southwestern and The Cooper Institute published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, found that people who maintained healthy lifestyles in their 30s, 40s, and 50s had few chronic illnesses, including Alzheimer’s, later in life. People who increased their fitness levels by 20 percent in their midlife years lowered their chances of developing Alzheimer’s by 20 percent.

“We know that exercise directly affects the growth of brain cells in a region of the brain called the hippocampus, which plays an important role in storing and accessing memories,” Dr. Quiceno said.

For Mrs. Jack, her initial participation in the study included MRI and a positron emission tomography scan, blood pressure reading, oxygen levels, a brain blood-flow test, and a full neuropsychological workup that included memory tests.

In addition, an exercise program director put together a workout routine she could do at home that emphasized muscle resistance and stretching. She worked out at least three times a week, sometimes repeating the circuit twice in a day.

“Once I got into it, I really enjoyed it,” she said. “It was good for me. It gave me more strength, and it made me feel like I could do anything, like I was ready for the day. And mentally, I could feel myself focus.”

After six months, Mrs. Jack had the regimen tweaked. “It was more stretching and a little bit more of a challenge,” she said.

Mrs. Jack completed her involvement in the exercise program in October 2012 and said she found it to be beneficial – for herself and others.

“It helped me feel like I was going forward in my life. It’s better to get ready and get prepared and maybe get better,” she said. “It’s a win-win all the way around. You are helping the research, and the research is helping you.”