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Busy bodies, healthy minds

Remaining active lowers risk of Alzheimer's, study shows

By Jessica Tobacman, Special to the Tribune

April 25, 2012

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Carol Adamitis had a stroke when she was 5 years old.

Now, at 65, she is participating in research that annually tests her physical and mental health, examining her dexterity as she places pegs in a board and her memory as she repeats a series of numbers backward and forward.

The study, led by professors at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, has found that people who are active are sharper and experience lower rates of Alzheimer's disease. Although Adamitis' arthritis makes exercise more difficult, and the stroke hurt her math skills and memory, her exam results show consistency from year to year.

"I'm always glad to know how I did on these tests. So far, I'm doing about the same," Adamitis said.

The study was published last week in the online issue of Neurology, the American Academy of Neurology's medical journal.

"We've shown for cognition that an active lifestyle increases the quality of life in old age and lowers the levels of disability," Dr. Aron S. Buchman, associate professor of neurological sciences at Rush and one of the study's authors, said. "When you hear the results, they sound kind of intuitive: If older people are more active, you can see they're doing better. This kind of information is helpful. Even at age 82, you can improve independence and quality of life."

The 716 participants thus far had an average age of 82 when they entered the study, and their activity level was followed for up to six years. Only 71 developed Alzheimer's disease during an average of 3.5 years of follow-up.

But Buchman noted, "You can have cognitive decline without dementia."

The study is still enrolling patients. "The more people we have in the study, the more likely we'll get reasonable results," he said.

Participants with the highest levels of activity ran a risk of about 8 percent during the course of five years of developing Alzheimer's disease, while those with the lowest levels of activity ran a risk of about 18 percent during a period of five years of developing Alzheimer's.

In addition to taking yearly exams, all participants in the study must agree to donate their brains and selected muscles and nerves after death.

"It's a commitment to a long-term health study," said Carol's husband, Donald, 68, who is also a participant in the study.

Although his left knee was replaced last year, Donald still works out at the gym two to three times each week. Mentally, he has shown similar results every year, and remains curious.

Part of his motivation for joining the study was donating his brain to science. "I just hope it does some good," he said.

Participants in the study wore actigraphs to measure their activities. Buchman said the device resembles a wristwatch and measures activity 24 hours a day.

"It's very exciting. Almost all previous research in this area is based on asking people how much they exercise," said Robert Wilson, a professor of neurological sciences and psychology at Rush University Medical Center and a co-investigator of the study.

The difficulties with simply asking people about their level of activity are twofold: They may not remember correctly, and they would not necessarily classify all of their activities, such as washing the dishes or cooking, as exercise, Wilson said.

"It (the actigraph) monitors how active someone is for 1.5 weeks. It gets at the whole spectrum of activities 24 hours a day," Wilson said.

Eilien Toft, 68, said she decided to participate in the study because "I think it's for a good cause, (a way to) help resolve medical issues prevalent in our society."

"It's a matter of us helping to heal ourselves," she said.