A study designed to compare the relative benefits of exercise and diet control on Alzheimer’s pathology and cognitive performance has revealed that while both are beneficial, exercise is of greater benefit in reducing Alzheimer’s pathology and cognitive impairment.
The study involved mice genetically engineered with a mutation in the APP gene (a familial risk factor for Alzheimer’s), who were given either a standard diet or a high-fat diet (60% fat, 20% carbohydrate, 20% protein vs 10% fat, 70% carbohydrate, 20% protein) for 20 weeks (from 2-3 to 7-8 months of age). Some of the mice on the high-fat diet spent the second half of that 20 weeks in an environmentally enriched cage (more than twice as large as the standard cage, and supplied with a running wheel and other objects). Others on the high-fat diet were put back on a standard diet in the second 10 weeks. Yet another group were put on a standard diet and given an enriched cage in the second 10 weeks.
Unsurprisingly, those on the high-fat diet gained significantly more weight than those on the standard diet, and exercise reduced that gain — but not as much as diet control (i.e., returning to a standard diet) did. Interestingly, this was not the result of changes in food intake, which either stayed the same or slightly increased.
More importantly, exercise and diet control were roughly equal in reversing glucose intolerance, but exercise was more effective than diet control in ameliorating cognitive impairment. Similarly, while amyloid-beta pathology was significantly reduced in both exercise and diet-control conditions, exercise produced the greater reduction in amyloid-beta deposits and level of amyloid-beta oligomers.
It seems that diet control improves metabolic disorders induced by a high-fat diet — conditions such as obesity, hyperinsulinemia and hypercholesterolemia — which affects the production of amyloid-beta. However exercise is more effective in tackling brain pathology directly implicated in dementia and cognitive decline, because it strengthens the activity of an enzyme that decreases the level of amyloid-beta.
Interestingly, and somewhat surprisingly, the combination of exercise and diet control did not have a significantly better effect than exercise alone.
The finding adds to the growing pile of evidence for the value of exercise in maintaining a healthy brain in later life, and helps explain why. Of course, as I’ve discussed on several occasions, we already know other mechanisms by which exercise improves cognition, such as boosting neurogenesis.
 Exercise Is More Effective than Diet Control in Preventing High Fat Diet-induced β-Amyloid Deposition and Memory Deficit in Amyloid Precursor Protein Transgenic Mice. Journal of Biological Chemistry [Internet]. 2012 ;287(27):23024 - 23033. Available from: http://www.jbc.org/content/287/27/23024