A new study concludes that exercise can lower the risk of cognitive decline for people with rheumatoid arthritis.
Past studies have reported that rheumatoid arthritis can increase difficulties with cognition such as brain fog.
People with rheumatoid arthritis tell Healthline that exercise helps them both mentally and physically.
Is exercise the key to better cognition in people with rheumatoid arthritis?
It just might be.
A recent study reports that people who have rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and are physically active also have better cognitive function.
The researchers reported that people with RA who exercise are better off in terms of brain health and memory than people with the disease who lead a more sedentary lifestyle.
This is despite the fact that some studies have shown that people with autoimmune diseases have a higher risk of cognitive difficulties.
The latest findings were from a 10-year study conducted by Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
It was a cohort of participants that included 1,219 people who self-reported on living with doctor-diagnosed, active RA.
As a part of the study, the participants were instructed to report annually on their perceived cognition, cognitive capacity, and/or cognitive dysfunction.
Cognitive dysfunction or impairment can be described as any cognitive issue that may negatively affect the performance of daily activities. It may include or be linked with other issues such as brain fog, memory problems, fatigue, anxiety, and depression.
Brain fog is an often-reported and mysterious symptom that can be associated with RA and similar conditions. It may cause forgetfulness, mental fatigue, or feeling like one is in a dreamlike state and can’t think clearly.
It’s not known why brain fog is a symptom associated with RA.
Exercise and cognition
In the general population, lifestyle factors and modifications such as physical activity and managing obesity can help reduce the risk of cognitive decline or dysfunction.
The recent study concluded that this was especially true for people living with RA who chose and were able to exercise more frequently.
In fact, researchers suggested physical activity guidelines seemed to protect the study participants from cognitive issues.
The decline in cognition was measured during this study by having the participants report how often they had issues remembering or coming up with words.
About 10 percent of the participants stated they often had poor memory, poor concentration, or difficulty finding words. Those who exercised more often seemed to have less difficulty in these areas.
Other factors such as sleep, body mass index, fatigue, depression, and the use of certain medications were noted but not taken into consideration. They weren’t necessarily associated with the worsening of cognitive decline.
Meeting a minimum suggested standard of physical activity was taken into consideration and seemed to play a big role in improved cognition. The federal guidelines for exercise are at least 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity or 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week.
Get Answers from a Doctor in Minutes, Anytime
Have medical questions? Connect with a board-certified, experienced doctor online or by phone. Pediatricians and other specialists available 24/7.
Reaction from people with RA
Some people with RA told Healthline that exercise does help them mentally as well as physically.
“Exercise is an absolute must for me,” said Crystal Solomon of Long Branch, New Jersey. “It helps with pain, brain fog, energy levels, and overall mood. Yoga, hiking, and Pilates are my exercises of choice.”
Alex Gould Baker, who was diagnosed with RA a year ago, agrees. “I like to take my dog for a short walk two to three times a day to clear my mind and get some steps in,” the Ontario, Canada, resident said.
“I was a runner when RA came into my life,” added Lin Newsom, a California resident. “I now do exercise tapes or walk when I’m not flaring. I used to like exercise in the morning, but my joint pain and brain fog won’t let me. I feel if I don’t move, I will become very restricted on what I can do.”
“Exercise definitely helps me clear the cobwebs in my brain and also improves my attitude,” noted Ashley Romero. “Some days I have to skip half my workout and stretches due to pain, and that leaves me in a terrible funk.”
Acacia Caraballo said exercise benefits her mental health. “I was an avid walker when RA hit,” she said. “I’ve been working my way back. I walk with some co-workers once a week for about 3 miles, and the combination of socializing and exercise really helps my overall mental health.”
Diana Henretty of Noel, Missouri, is another example. “I’ve had RA for 17 years. I walk 2 to 3 miles a day, weather permitting, to stay healthy mentally, physically, and spiritually,” she said.
Getting doctors involved
The researchers on the Brigham study said it’s important that doctors recognize the link between lifestyle factors and cognitive symptoms in RA.
They see it as preventive medicine.
“If clinicians are interesting in screening rheumatoid arthritis patients for early dementia and do not have the resources or time to perform neurocognitive testing, understanding the role that lifestyle and clinical factors play in the report of cognition difficulties is important,” the study authors wrote. “Our study suggests potential modifiable risk factors for the prevention of cognitive dysfunction in rheumatoid arthritis.”