In our last article, we discussed what proactive steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Today we’re going to go into further detail on one such step: regular exercise.
Many older adults find that with age fitness is more difficult to maintain. You may face chronic pain, fatigue, or illnesses that limit your physical abilities. Additionally, if you’re isolated from friends and family you might lack the motivation to exercise on your own. There’s still plenty you can do, however! Let’s learn why exercise plays such an important role in reducing one’s risk for these serious diseases, and how you can incorporate it into your own life.
What scientific evidence is there to support this claim? As one reference, we can look at a study done by neuroscientist Art Kramer. He scanned the brains of 120 older adults, half of whom started a program of moderate aerobic exercise — just 45 minutes, three days a week, mostly walking. After a year, the MRI scans showed that for the aerobic group, the volume of their brains actually increased.
What’s more, individuals in the control group lost about 1.5 percent of their brain volume, adding up to a 3.5 percent difference between individuals who took part in aerobic exercise and those who did not. Further tests showed that increased brain volume translated into better memory.
This isn’t an isolated case. Bryan James is an epidemiologist at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago. He conducted a study in which he looked at a different measure of activity — something he calls “life space.” He added up how often people got out of their bedroom, went out of their house, traveled out of their neighborhood or out of town. “The people who never left their home — even though they didn’t seem to have any cognitive problems when we started following them — were twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease over five years,” James says.
Why exactly does this happen? Increased aerobic capacity has benefits for the metabolism and physiological function of the brain. A protein known as brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF) is known to be important in the development, survival, and plasticity of nerve cells called neurons. It’s also important in protecting against neuro-degeneration that’s associated with Alzheimer’s disease, and other forms of dementia.
Regular aerobic exercise boosts the level of BDNF by 2-3 times, and clearly the more often you exercise, the more prolonged the effect. We all deal with stress and fear in our everyday life, requiring our brains to constantly adapt. Since exercise has been shown to help us do this, it may well explain how it can be effective in reducing the risk of depression, anxiety, and dementia.
What You Can Do
As mentioned, this blog has covered the topic of fitness in the past. There are 3 common threads among them: start with easy, gentle exercises until you know your personal limits; reach out to family and friends for support, or look for a group to join; and have fun! By finding activities you really enjoy doing, you ensure that you continue to do them with regularity.
For more, check out our past articles regarding fitness and overall wellness:
Does this mean that you can 100% prevent dementia? Sadly, no. There are a myriad of factors that influence someone’s risk. However, you can play an active role in your own future health, and do a great deal of good for your brain!