$21.8M grant awarded for Pitt study on whether exercise improves memory, cognition
November 5, 2016 12:59 AM
Roger Kisby/The New York Times
A $21.8 million grant from the National Institute of Aging will allow researchers from Pitt and two other universities to study how exercise influences cognitive and brain health in older adults. Above, David Gladfelter, 80, a semi-retired lawyer, cools down after a race during the New Jersey Senior Olympics in September.
With baby boomers reaching their senior years and the American population, on average, getting older, the National Institute of Aging has decided to invest big dollars to answer a big question.
Does exercise for people 65 and older improve cognition and memory?
Scientists generally believe so, based on results from various smaller studies, but have yet to prove it definitively. Amid the skepticism are open questions about the degree, if any, that exercise can bolster brain function in older adults.
To answer those questions, the University of Pittsburgh has landed a five-year, $21.8 million National Institute of Aging grant, to determine whether moderately intense exercise — 150 to 225 minutes of brisk walking each week — will improve brain function in older adults. The study also involves researchers from Northeastern University, the University of Kansas and University of Illinois.
The study will determine whether exercise has potential to prevent or treat dementia and memory loss, and even Alzheimer’s disease, with no current treatments available.
“The average age of the population is increasing and people are living longer lives, especially with baby boomers reaching a critical period, and from a health care perspective, we’re not incredibly prepared for it,” said study leader Kirk Erickson, director of Pitt’s Brain Aging and Cognitive Health Lab.
“This study will more definitively address whether exercise influences cognitive and brain health in cognitively normal older adults, as well as understanding the mechanisms of physical activity on the brain,” he said.
During the study, 639 cognitively normal adults between 65 and 80 years of age will undergo different “doses” of exercise, with the first group briskly walking 150 minutes a week, a second group briskly walking for 225 minutes a week and a third control group doing only stretching and toning exercises for 150 minutes a week. Each person will continue that regimen for a full year.
Researchers will measure improvements in cognitive function and markers of brain health and whether the amount of exercise plays a role. Another aim is determining whether changes in the nervous system, heart and metabolism from exercise lead to improvements in cognition and memory — and whether age and genetics affect results.
The study is expensive, said Mr. Erickson, who holds a Ph.D. in psychology and neuroscience, because each participant must undergo an MRI brain scan before and after the program, with many monitors and trainers necessary to assure that the participants are completing their assigned levels of exercise.
“We know from a lot of different studies that exercise affects the brain, but whether it positively affects brain deficits in older adults is another question,” he said. “There is promising data that it’s likely the case, but there’s lots of skepticism and that’s why we argued — and the NIA agreed — it’s time to do a big, definitive study.”
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