Want to ward off dementia; cut Parkinson’s progression? Exercise, exercise, exercise–and the harder the better, new study reports.

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The News:

High-intensity exercise three times a week is safe for individuals with early-stage Parkinson’s disease and decreases worsening of motor symptoms, according to a new Phase 2, multi-site trial led by Northwestern Medicine and University of Colorado School of Medicine scientists.

This is the first time scientists have tested the effects of high-intensity exercise on patients with Parkinson’s disease, the second most common neurodegenerative disorder and the most common movement disorder, affecting more than a million people in the US.

It previously had been thought high-intensity exercise was too physically stressful for individuals with Parkinson’s disease. The paper was published in JAMA Neurology, December 11, 2017.

Parkinson’s symptoms include progressive loss of muscle control, trembling, stiffness, slowness and impaired balance. As the disease progresses, it may become difficult to walk, talk and complete simple tasks. Most people who develop Parkinson’s are 60 and older.

“If you have Parkinson’s disease and you want to delay the progression of your symptoms, you should exercise three times a week with your heart rate between 80% to 85% maximum. It is that simple,” said co-lead author Daniel Corcos, professor of physical therapy and human movement sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

Because medications for Parkinson’s have adverse side effects and reduced effectiveness over time, new treatments are needed.

The randomized clinical trial included 128 participants ages 40 to 80 years old from Northwestern University, Rush University Medical Center, the University of Colorado and the University of Pittsburgh.

Participants enrolled in the Study in Parkinson Disease of Exercise (SPARX) were at an early stage of the disease and not taking Parkinson’s medication, ensuring the results of the study were related to the exercise and not affected by medication.

“The earlier in the disease you intervene, the more likely it is you can prevent the progression of the disease,” Corcos said. “We delayed worsening of symptoms for six months; whether we

Steve’s Take:

As I’ve written here before, my father died from Parkinson’s. As our family watched him slowly disappear from progressive dementia–right before our very eyes. None of us, including the battery of his medical team, knew what to do.

Steve's Take: New study shows that #exercise can slow symptoms of #Parkinsons and #dementia Click To Tweet

Now we are learning that strenuous exercise, taken up when preclinical neurodegenerative disease is suspected, could have delayed worsening of his symptoms, even possibly preventing further progression, especially for his problems with motor control and his cognitive functioning, which ultimately deteriorated into dementia.

When I first read the above study heralding the data connecting exercise to disease prevention, I thought: too bad we didn’t know about this data when Dad was still around. I thought, what if he suddenly adopted a rigorous exercise regimen–four times a week according to the study, for thirty minutes a session, where he had to get his heart rate above 85% of capacity? Would that have given him more quality time both for himself and for us, too?

In retrospect though, my Dad didn’t exercise. Unless you count ping-pong, or horse shoes, and fly-fishing. And even if he knew about these latest findings, would he, at age 60, have made the choice for such a truly radical change in his weekly routine?

My guess is, he wouldn’t. He was a true fatalist, meaning he believed his fate was pre-destined and nothing could be changed. But a happy, loving, family-oriented man; hard-working breadwinner and subtle, but effective, mentor. The truth is, I’ll never know what he might have done with these exercise data.

But armed today with brain MRI technology, we can possibly detect preclinical mild cognitive impairment (MCI) before it may progress, and in some cases, even lead to full-blown Alzheimer’s. I recently had a brain MRI, and boy was that a long, deafening hour. But for now, there was nothing worrisome in the scan report, according to my neurologist.

Im’ a long-distance runner from way back. I know, hooray for me. But I look back and recall that I was never able to talk my Dad into running with me. Or playing some “horse” hoops in our driveway. It just wasn’t his thing. And probably wouldn’t be even now with these latest, promising data. More likely he’d say, “Let’s go fishing.”

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