Social activity, aging education critical to
BATON ROUGE – Among the many benefits to our overall health and well-being, exercise strengthens the brain and helps ward off cognitive decline. However, the results of a recent clinical study revealed another activity that may benefit the brain more than exercise alone: social engagement and education about healthy aging.
A BrightFocus Alzheimer’s Disease Research-funded research team at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge aimed to advance the understanding of the benefits of exercise to protect brain health, specifically among African Americans age 65 and older.
The scholarship recipients Dr. Robert L. Newton Jr. and Dr. Owen Carmichael believed that by identifying ways to encourage older African American adults to exercise more, they might be able to improve their cognition (i.e. their thinking) and prevent cognitive loss as they age.
Afro-Americans are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia as whites and are generally underrepresented in health and aging research. Despite their disproportionate risk, little is known about effective interventions to prevent dementia and cognitive decline in the African American population.
“To date, very few studies have specifically developed a physical activity intervention for older African Americans,” the researchers write.
To meet these requirements, Dr. Newton and Carmichael designed and conducted a pilot clinical study to evaluate the effectiveness of exercise and other interventions in protecting against cognitive decline in healthy older African Americans. The results of the study, called the Program for African American Cognition and Exercise, or PAACE, were published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.
About the study
dr Newton and Carmichael developed the program by collecting information directly from older African Americans about the types of physical activity and program components (eg, duration) that would be acceptable to an older African American population. The researchers combined this input with previously collected information about their beliefs about dementia, assessments they were willing to make, and their willingness to participate in different types of lifestyle interventions to create the exercise program.
A total of 56 healthy African American men and women aged 65 to 85 years participated in the 12-week study. Half was allocated to an exercise program that aimed for 150 minutes of moderate-to-intensive aerobic exercise per week. Participants participated in 45- to 60-minute group exercises consisting of aerobic exercise (e.g., walking, line dancing), strength, balance, and flexibility training two days per week at the local YMCA. These participants also exercised at home two to four days a week.
The other half were matched to a successful age group where they participated in weekly 30- to 60-minute group sessions. Seventy percent of the time was devoted to education and the remaining 30 percent was group discussions. Topics included healthy eating, living wills and dementia awareness.
Standard tests were performed before and after the study to determine if there was an effect on cognition in the exercise program group compared to the educational program group.
Which group showed greater improvements in cognition? The results of this pilot trial showed that the exercise program did not improve cognitive function. The educational program did.
At the end of 12 weeks, participants in the exercise program group showed no evidence of improved cognitive function as measured by standard cognitive tests, while cognitive scores in the exercise program group increased significantly.
The paper provided possible explanations for these results. The intensity or dose of physical activity in the exercise program group may not have been sufficient to improve cognitive function.
Even so, the authors speculate that there may still have been benefits to the training program group. For example, members of the exercise program group increased their moderate-to-vigorous physical activity by an average of 45 minutes per person per week, a level that could have heart health benefits and a reduced risk of diabetes — Alzheimer’s risk factors that are higher in African Americans than in whites .
The authors also speculated that the educational program group may have responded to information related to improving lifestyle behaviors, such as diet and sleep, which may have improved cognitive function. They may also have benefited from social engagement during group discussions. Small changes in any of these behaviors are unlikely to affect cognition; However, other studies have shown that multiple changes in different behaviors (eg, diet, physical activity, social engagement, sleep) improve cognitive function, the authors noted.
Women in the educational program group showed the highest cognitive benefits among study participants. This is consistent with other evidence showing that social engagement and support make important contributions to women’s health.
The results can serve as a guide for future research. For example, the authors propose to investigate whether changing multiple lifestyle behaviors at the same time improves cognitive outcomes in older African Americans – an approach to reducing Alzheimer’s risk that is largely not targeted at this demographic.
Follow-up research should focus on improving the effectiveness of the training program, examining what components made the educational program effective, and examining why women appeared to benefit most, the authors suggested.
It may be possible to address the issue of exercise effectiveness in new studies that Dr. Newton and Carmichael started with nearly $2 million in federal funding from the National Institute on Aging. The Reducing African Americans’ Alzheimer’s Disease Risk Through Exercise (RAATE) studies now recruiting are similar to PAACE but are larger, longer in duration and include people with mild cognitive impairment. Participants will be randomly assigned to a physical activity promotion intervention or a healthy aging information group. The primary goal is to compare the effects of both interventions on cognition (memory and executive function).
Studies suggest that maintaining social connections and maintaining mental activity as you age can reduce your risk of cognitive decline and dementia, possibly due to strengthening the connections between nerve cells in the brain. As the researchers emphasize, more research is needed on the effects of exercise and other interventions on cognitive outcomes in African Americans and people from underrepresented groups. The best choice might be to design studies that combine vigorous physical activity with socially engaging activities.
“Important and exciting research like this exemplifies the discoveries being made at Pennington Biomedical,” said Dr. John Kirwan, Executive Director of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center. “As we learn more about diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia, this type of research study could go a long way toward finding ways to improve cognition and ensure healthy aging in our older population.” The one from Dr. Newton and Dr. The work Carmichael does is an important piece of the puzzle to help solve this type of chronic disease and we thank the BrightFocus Foundation for their partnership.”
Alzheimer’s Disease Research, a BrightFocus Foundation program, has an active grant portfolio of more than $45 million in 167 scientific research grants addressing Alzheimer’s disease. A recent ADR-funded project is studying the effects of the exercise hormone irisin on astrocytes in Alzheimer’s disease, which could lead to new therapeutic designs that mimic the beneficial effects of exercise; Another examines the effects of diet and exercise on the brain and how this occurs APOE Gene further influences this relationship.
The BrightFocus Foundation reaches millions of people worldwide through its outreach and education efforts about brain and eye health. In 2021, BrightFocus launched Brain Info Live, a community outreach series addressing health inequalities and equity for people with Alzheimer’s. Through this and other programs, including BrightFocus Chats and Community Circle, BrightFocus works to build trust and support among community members, families, physicians, researchers and other healthcare professionals.
Video available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=woll9Gf15cY.
About the Pennington Biomedical Research Center
Pennington Biomedical Research Center is at the forefront of medical research in understanding the causes of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and dementia. The center developed the Obesity, USA national awareness and advocacy campaign to help fight the obesity epidemic by 2040. The center conducts basic, clinical, and population research and is affiliated with LSU.
Pennington Biomedical’s research organization employs over 480 people across a network of 40 clinics and research laboratories and 13 highly specialized core service facilities. Its scientists and physicians/scientists are supported by research interns, laboratory technicians, nurses, nutritionists and other support staff. Pennington Biomedical is a state-of-the-art research facility on a 222-acre campus in Baton Rouge.
Visit www.pbrc.edu for more information.
About the BrightFocus Foundation
The BrightFocus Foundation is a leading nonprofit funder of research targeting Alzheimer’s, macular degeneration and glaucoma. Through its flagship research programs – Alzheimer’s Disease Research, National Glaucoma Research and Macular Degeneration Research – the Foundation currently supports a $75 million portfolio of 287 scientific projects worldwide. BrightFocus has awarded nearly $275 million in groundbreaking medical research funding since its inception, and shares the latest research, expert information, and English/Spanish disease resources to empower the millions of people affected by these devastating diseases. Join our community at brightfocus.org.