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Nov. 20, 2008
Contact: Brendan M. Lynch, University Relations, (785) 864-8855.

In aerobic activity, KU researcher sees brain benefits for older adults

LAWRENCE — The first thing one might notice during a visit to the University of Kansas office of David Kevin Johnson are the human brains floating inside glass jars.

But Johnson is no mad scientist. Rather, the down-to-earth assistant professor of psychology and investigator with the Life Span Institute’s Gerontology Center is an expert on cognition in seniors. It is a research field that includes Alzheimer’s disease — the most prevalent form of dementia. The jars in his office hold examples of brains that aged normally and brains ravaged by memory loss and faulty cognition.

During the past year, Johnson has been encouraged by his research showing that aerobic exercise could stave off the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s.

“The same risk factors for cardiovascular disease are at play in Alzheimer’s,” he said. “When you say something like ‘heart-healthy is brain-healthy,’ we know that aerobic exercise is good for the heart. It also seems to be very good for Alzheimer’s or cognitive decline, however you specify it, in any aging population.”

Johnson has participated in neuroimaging studies performed by the Alzheimer’s and Memory Project at the KU Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan., and the Neuropsychology and Aging Laboratory at the Lawrence campus. The work, which has been funded by the National Institute on Aging, clearly demonstrates the positive effects of aerobic workouts in seniors, whether or not they are affected by cognitive disorder.

“If they’re aerobically fit, they have less brain atrophy than those individuals who are not aerobically fit,” Johnson said. “We can see, at least at a biological level, something going on in brain tissue.”

The demographics of dementia give Johnson’s research into the benefits of exercise more urgency.

“One in 10 older adults over the age 75 has moderate or even worse cognitive impairment — and the risk of cognitive impairment doubles every five years after that,” Johnson said. “There are a lot of older adults who are having some type of cognitive problem, and we don’t understand the process fully yet. It’s very important, now that the older adult population in this county is growing nearly exponentially, that we understand those processes quickly.”

Although promising, research tying cardiovascular health to cognitive function is still in early stages. In a new clinical trail, Johnson hopes to establish a more exact understanding of “dose response.” He aims to determine what forms of aerobic exercise are best for seniors, how much exercise is most helpful and if there is a point of diminishing returns for an exercise prescription.

“We’ll enroll about 100 individuals who will participate in varying amounts of exercise regimens, and we’ll follow them over the course of three years to see if those exercise regimens are helping them on cognitive testing, on activities of daily living, and measures of physical function and fitness,” said the KU researcher.

Despite a need to fine-tune the scientific understanding of how aerobic exertion improves cognitive ability, Johnson said it is clear already that seniors should exercise regularly.

“Older adults should not be sedentary,” Johnson said. “Older adults should try not only to engage socially with friends and families but also be active and fit. They should be walking or exercising at whatever level they’re capable and comfortable with.”

Seniors interested in participating in the upcoming study should call the Alzheimer’s and Memory Program at (913) 588-0555.

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The University of Kansas is a major comprehensive research and teaching university. University Relations is the central public relations office for KU's Lawrence campus.

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