Can Alzheimer’s and Dementia be Prevented with Regular Exercise?

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Alzheimer’s Disease is one of the biggest concerns many of us have as we get older. The thought of developing the disease can be a frightening prospect, especially if you’ve witnessed a loved one affected by dementia. While you may have been told that all you can do is hope for the best and wait for a pharmaceutical cure, the truth is much more encouraging. Promising research shows that you can reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s and other dementias through a combination of simple but effective lifestyle changes.

By identifying and controlling your personal risk factors and leading a brain-healthy lifestyle, you can maximize your chances of lifelong brain health and preserve your cognitive abilities. These steps may prevent the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and slow down the process of deterioration.

Alzheimer’s is a complex disease with multiple risk factors. Some, like your age and genetics, are outside your control. However, there are seven pillars for a brain-healthy lifestyle that are within your control:

  1. Regular exercise
  2. Social engagement
  3. Healthy diet
  4. Mental stimulation
  5. Quality sleep
  6. Stress management
  7. Vascular health

Experts now believe that the risk of Alzheimer’s is not limited to old age, but in fact can start in the brain long before symptoms are detected, often in middle age. That means that it’s never too early to start taking care of your brain health. The more you strengthen each of the seven pillars in your daily life, the longer—and stronger—your brain will stay working and the more likely you’ll be able to reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s or another dementia.

This month’s article will focus on the first Pillar: Regular Exercise and future articles will address the remaining ones.

According to the Alzheimer’s Research & Prevention Foundation, regular physical exercise can reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by up to 50 percent. What’s more, exercise can also slow further deterioration in those who have already started to develop cognitive problems. Exercise protects against Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia by stimulating the brain’s ability to maintain old connections as well as make new ones.

Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week. The ideal plan involves a combination of cardio exercise and strength training. Good activities for beginners include walking and swimming.

Build muscle to pump up your brain. Moderate levels of weight and resistance training not only increase muscle mass, they help you maintain brain health. For those over 65, adding 2-3 strength sessions to your weekly routine may cut your risk of Alzheimer’s in half.

Include balance and coordination exercises. Head injuries from falls are an increasing risk as you age, which in turn increase your risk for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. As well as protecting your head when you exercise (wearing a sports helmet when cycling, for example), balance and coordination exercises can help you stay agile and avoid spills. Try yoga, Tai Chi, or exercises using balance balls.

Tips for starting and sticking with an exercise plan
If you’ve been inactive for a while, starting an exercise program can be intimidating. But remember: a little exercise is better than none. In fact, adding just modest amounts of physical activity to your weekly routine can have a profound effect on your health. Choose activities you enjoy and start small—a 10-minute walk a few times a day, for example—and allow yourself to gradually build up your momentum and self-confidence.

Authors: Melinda Smith, M.A., Lawrence Robinson, and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. Last updated: February 2020. https://www.helpguide.org/

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