Wednesday, June 07, 2006


The Surprising First Sign of Alzheimer's

The first sign of dementia, including Alzheimer's disease, may not be mental decline. Instead, it's quite likely to be physical decline, especially difficulty walking and maintaining balance.

That's the word from researchers at the University of Washington, who found in a study of more than 2,000 elderly people that declining physical symptoms were associated with an increased risk of developing dementia. What everyone thinks of as a brain ailment may actually be linked to physical fitness.

Here's the good news: Regular exercise may help stall the progression of dementia and even reduce the risk of ever getting it, an idea that is supported by previous research. Exercise serves as a protector by boosting blood flow to the brain.

The study: Using a variety of standardized tests, the University of Washington researchers assessed the physical and cognitive function of 2,288 men and women in the Seattle area who were 65 or older. In addition, they continued to monitor them every two years for six years, looking for signs of physical and mental decline. None of the participants had any signs of dementia when the research began.

The results: After six years, 319 of the participants had developed dementia, 221 of whom had Alzheimer's disease. The men and women who had scores at the beginning of the study indicating good physical performance were three times less likely to develop dementia than those who had poor scores. The first indicators of developing dementia were difficulty walking and maintaining balance. A weak handgrip may be a later sign of the development of dementia in older people.

"Everyone had expected the earliest signs of dementia would be subtle cognitive changes. We were surprised to find that physical changes can precede declines in thinking," study leader Dr. Eric Larson said in a news release. "These results suggest that in aging, there's a close link between the mind and body. Physical and mental performance may go hand in hand, and anything you can do to improve one is likely to improve the other."

The takeaway: If people notice they are starting to decline physically, engaging in physical activity may help stop or slow this decline and reduce their risk of dementia.

The study appears in Archives of Internal Medicine.


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