Exercise helps with better brain functioning in HIV-infected adults

Regular exercise is not only good for health, but can give people living with HIV a significant mental boost. This is according to a study by David J. Moore, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and colleagues at UC San Diego School of Medicine, published recently in the Journal of NeuroVirology, who found that HIV-infected adults who exercise suffered significantly less neurocognitive impairment than patients who do not exercise.

Despite recent advances in antiretroviral treatment, impaired brain functioning is a reality faced by nearly half of all people living with HIV. Such impairment may be asymptomatic, or include deficits that interfere with a patient’s daily functioning, such as problems with financial management, driving or adhering to their medications.

Moore and his team found that HIV-infected adults who exercise were approximately half as likely to show signs of neurocognitive impairment as those who do not. They also had better working memory and could process information more rapidly than patients who follow a sedentary lifestyle.

The major benefit of exercise to the brain seems to be the reduction of neurocognitive risk factors, such as high blood pressure and abnormally high levels of lipids in the blood. Metabolic syndrome associated with the use of antiretroviral treatment is also linked to an increase in cerebrovascular risk factors, such as diabetes, hypertension and obesity – risk factors that may be mitigated by exercise.  

In the study, 335 community-dwelling HIV-infected people were asked how much exercise they undertook during the previous 72 hours, and persons were classified into those who engaged in significant exercise (e.g., activities that make the heart beat rapidly) and those who did not. Seven cognitive areas commonly affected by HIV were tested, including verbal fluency, working memory, speed of information processing, learning, recall, executive function and motor function.

“Exercise as a modifiable lifestyle behavior may reduce or potentially prevent neurocognitive impairment in HIV-infected persons,” says Moore. “Physical exercise, together with other modifiable lifestyle factors such as education, social engagement, cognitive stimulation and diet, could be fruitful interventions to support people living with HIV.

HIV, if Treated, May Not Raise Cognitive Impairment Risk

While dementia related to HIV was once highly common, in the modern era of antiretrovirals it has become rare. Nevertheless, research has suggested that as much as half of people living with the virus still experience some form of neurocognitive impairment. The findings of this research suggest that such an estimate may be exaggerated.