Exercise and Alzheimer's
The Importance of Exercise in Preventing and Improving Alzheimer's
• Numerous studies have shown the importance of exercise for both brain and heart health.
• Exercise is important for the brain because it floods the brain with an increased fresh supply of blood, clearing out harmful waste products and providing it with the nutrients it needs to function.
• Studies have shown that individuals who regularly exercise have significantly less of the harmful chemicals believed to be responsible for Alzheimer's disease.
• In this article we discuss the importance of exercise for the heart and brain, the studies which analyze the relationship between exercise and Alzheimer's disease, and provide a recommendation for the proper amount of exercise for a healthy brain. At the end of the article we provide a list of fitness resources for seniors.
Alzheimer’s disease, strokes, and diseases of the heart are 3 of the top 5 causes of death for Americans over the age of 65.
Study after study has shown that exercise significantly decreases your risk for all three of these diseases. In fact, when it comes to living a longer life of better quality, regular exercise is one of the best investments you can make.
The heart benefits of regular exercise have long been known, more recently research has emerged on how exercise can prevent and even improve Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Exercise and Alzheimer’s
During exercise your heart beats more quickly and increases the amount of blood that is pumped to your muscles and brain. The increased blood flow brings the brain more of the nutrients and energy that it needs to function while also removing an increased amount of waste products from the brain.
This leads to two significant benefits.
The first occurs during exercise, the increased blood flow causes the brain to perform at a higher level, it creates more cells and produces more of protective chemicals that help prevent brain damage.
The second occurs as a result of repeated bouts of exercise. The heart is strengthened by exercise and it regularly pumps more blood to all parts of the body, including the brain. The brain gets used to the increased fuel and nutrients and it begins to create more protective chemicals and remove more of the harmful ones.
The end result is a healthier brain; one with increased protection from Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s, strokes, and even normal age-related mental decline.
Numerous studies support the benefits discussed above; below we briefly examine several of these studies. Links to the studies are included in the sources at the end of the article.
A study published in Journal of the American Geriatrics Society examined 134 individuals with moderate to severe Alzheimer’s disease. The individuals were placed in one of two groups. One group participated in a 1 hour exercise program twice a week, while the other group received routine medical care without an exercise program. The study lasted for 12 months and at its conclusion the researchers examined how the mental conditions of the individuals in each group had changed. The researchers found that the individuals who did not exercise declined significantly more than the individuals who had exercised.
The researchers concluded: “A simple exercise program, 1 hour twice a week, led to a significantly slower decline … in patients with [Alzheimer’s Disease]”
A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience found that exercise decreased the amount of amyloid plaques, a harmful substance believed to be one of the primary causes of Alzheimer’s disease, from 40-50% in mice. This study is one of the most widely cited about Alzheimer’s disease and exercise because it describes the chemical reactions and pathways which explain how exercise decreases the chances of Alzheimer’s disease.
Several additional studies built on these findings to see if the beneficial results found in mice could be duplicated in humans. The studies examined the amount of Tau and Amyloid, the two molecules believed to be the primary causes of Alzheimer’s, in study participants. The studies found that individuals who regularly exercised had significantly less of the proteins which are responsible for Alzheimer’s disease.
The evidence shows that regular exercise not only reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s and cognitive decline, but that it can improve mental abilities in affected individuals. Exercise has also been shown to have many indirect benefits; exercise improves self-esteem, mood, and confidence which are all related to mental health.
Individuals who are able to safely exercise should begin; individuals who have a condition that affects their ability to exercise should consult a physician to determine an exercise program that would work for them.
How Much Exercise:
The World Health Organization recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity each week.
Moderate Intensity compared with Vigorous Intensity
Moderate intensity is defined as a medium amount of effort with a noticeable increase in breathing and heart rate.
Bicycling slower than 10 miles per hour
Vigorous intensity exercise is defined by a significant effort with rapid breathing and a significantly increased heart rate.
Jogging or running
Bicycling faster than 10 miles per hour
Physical Fitness Resources:
Local community centers, senior centers, and gyms are often excellent resources to find exercise classes geared to individuals over the age of 50.
YMCA: Most YMCAs offer fitness classes geared for individuals over the age of 45.
SilverSneakers: A fitness program covered by Medicare.
Fitness Program Finder: International Council on Active Aging’s tool to find fitness programs for individuals over the age of 50.
World Health Organization’s Guide on Physical Activity for Older Adults
United States Center for Disease Control Guide on Physical Activity for Older Adults
The U.S. CDC’s guide on measuring physical activity