Special Report: How exercise can affect memory retention

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MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. (KTTC) – Right now there are more than 94,000 Minnesotans living with Alzheimer’s disease. Those staggering numbers are expected to grow. Experts say the diagnosis could reach to 14 million people nationwide by the year 2050.

Even with today’s medical advances, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s.

“When you get the news, it’s devastating,” caregiver to her husband living with Alzheimer’s Cathy Stockinger said.

University of Minnesota, School of Nursing professor Doctor Fang Yu started researching dementia and its many forms about 30 years ago.

“There’s really not much about what it is, what causes it, what are the common symptoms or how you really care for people in that condition, so that really intrigued me,” Dr. Yu said. “They’re told they have Alzheimer’s but there is nothing we can do for you.”

We exercise for different reasons: to lose weight, to feel better about yourself, but is preventing memory loss on that list?

“Epidemiological studies show when you do physical activity in your life,” Dr. Fang said. “Your risk for dementia is much reduced.”

Dr. Fang says aerobic exercise might be the key to slowing down the devastating disease.

Dr. Yu estimates there is a 30 to 50 percent risk reduction. Since 2013, she’s been putting that theory into action, by studying adults living with mild forms of the disease.

“When you’re sitting at home all the time,” former study participant Roger Stockinger said. “You want to get out of the house and you want to do something, so I picked something that would be good for me and it has been.”

Its a year long program, where participants work out three times a week for six months. After the six months, the research team checks in with them for another half year. They’ve had about one hundred participants.

“This study has improved the quality of life for pretty much everyone who’s been in it,” exercise interventionist Kaitlin Kelly said.

And the results are showing up in more ways than one.

“I’ve seen more changes now, so its kept an even keel when he was in the program,” Cathy said. “And I think just the socializing was good. Come home and tell me stories, and enjoyed.”

Kelly works one on one with the participants when they come in for their work outs. She’s seen the benefits first hand and has heard stories of success from their caregivers.

“He was motivated again, he would get up on his own in the morning while she was still in bed, get up and eat breakfast,” Kelly said. “And get his little bag ready with his shoes and his water and wait by the door for the car to come.”

Dr. Yu’s study gives them an island of hope.

“Inevitably, the disease will win,” Kelly said. “You know, so you really have to take one day at a time and live in the moment and hope that what we are doing in the moment is helping.”

“You really value each day, things change and you change with them,” Cathy said.

Dr. Yu adds that this study will wind down in March and another study will begin. Dr. Yu and her research team will be blind to results until September. The next study continues to center around physical activity, but will target Alzheimer’s prevention instead.

Beret Leone

Beret Leone

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