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Can Exercise Prevent Dementia?

Alzheimer’s disease is among the fastest-growing and most deadly diseases. What’s worse, there are currently no effective treatments or therapies to stop or reverse it and it’s commonly thought that cognitive function inevitably declines as we grow older.

Market Watch’s recent article entitled “How exercise can help prevent dementia” points out that although there’s no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, and an estimated 3% of all cases are entirely genetic, recent research suggests that some lifestyle interventions could slow its progression.

Dr. Dean Sherzai, a clinical neurologist and co-director of the Brain Health and Alzheimer’s Prevention Program at Loma Linda University in California, has developed a five-component lifestyle intervention therapy he uses with patients.

“We have people coming to us with early signs, or so-called subjective impairment, and then we have people a little more advanced, classified as having mild cognitive impairment, or MCI,” Dr. Sherzai explained. “We give them interventions, give them advice on changes they can make to their lifestyle components and we look at what happens.”

Of the five components in Dr. Sherzai’s lifestyle intervention, exercise is the one he typically recommends starting first.

“Whenever we apply behavior change to a population, we’re looking to create sustainable habits with small successes people can see right away, and nothing is better than exercise. It’s easy to implement, measurable and precise, with a fast return,” Dr. Sherzai said.

After only a couple of weeks of regular exercise, Dr. Sherzai’s patients often feel better, get better sleep and their lipid and blood glucose profiles improve. He says that these are some of the indirect ways exercise reduces risk for Alzheimer’s, because each of those factors are associated with higher rates of the disease. The doctor also mentioned three direct links between exercise and improved brain health:

  1. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, which delivers more oxygen and nutrients;
  2. Exercise simultaneously flushes inflammatory and oxidative elements out the brain faster; and
  3. An increase in a chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which Sherzai says, “is almost like growth hormones for neurons, but specifically for the connections between neurons.” Maintaining these neuronal connections is a key in preventing Alzheimer’s disease.

Brain scientists agree that exercise is good for preventing cognitive decline but they don’t yet know if any one type is better than another. It is something that scientists are starting to research. For now, a number of studies have shown that both aerobic and resistance training have major cognitive benefits.

Sherzai recommends exercises involving the legs, whether that’s walking, running, cycling or weightlifting he says that’s because, “your legs — not the heart — are the largest pump in the body.”

Reference: Market Watch (Sep. 28, 2021) “How exercise can help prevent dementia”

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