Dementia is afflicting the aging human brain every year and Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia. It is becoming so common that when you are 65 or older you will know just as many with it as without. Did you know that in the next 30 years the rates are expected to triple?
You have likely witnessed the slow and painful decline of a loved one. Having seen your grandma, grandpa, mom or dad go from strong and vibrant, to having a blank look when a friend talks to them at church. You know they physically are still there but everything that made them who you loved has slipped away.
You are scared that dementia may have to be your fate and would do anything to try and change it, but aren’t even sure where to start. The good news is that most dementia can be prevented, and one of the most studied and reliable preventions is physical exercise.
What is Dementia?
Before we get too carried away into why physical exercise is beneficial for brain health and dementia specifically, let’s tune back into what it is. Dementia is an umbrella term to describe cognitive impairment that is significantly affecting one’s life. The most widely known type of dementia is Alzheimer’s Disease.
Early Warning Signs of Dementia:
● Memory loss – you notice you are walking into rooms more frequently and forgetting what you were going to grab. You don’t remember the details of your family vacation last summer and your spouse has to fill in the gaps.
● Unable to communicate clearly – when having conversations with family, friends, and co-workers you seem to be losing the word you are looking for even though you had it.
● Unable to problem solve – when given a task at work or home that requires multiple steps you get frustrated and forget where you were in the process
● Lack of proper judgment or reasoning – you find yourself more easily frustrated and impatient when having conversations as you seem to take things the wrong way
● Changes in mood – you find yourself losing a zest for life and struggling to find joy in regular life, whether it is going on a hike, to the movies, or hanging out with friends
These are changes that may occur over time. For most the underlying process that causes dementia has been going on for 20-30 years before a diagnosis is ever given and in some instances longer than that.
How Physical Exercise Can Help Prevent Dementia
Studies are increasingly popping up explaining the benefits of physical exercise and how it can prevent dementia3. While the science is still getting a clearer picture on how exercise helps prevent neurodegenerative diseases, it’s clear that it does.
Unhealthy brains have changes in:
● How it connects, which can lead to problems with finding words, coordination, and concentration.
● How it produces and uses energy which creates fatigue and impaired functioning as the day goes on or is negatively affected with a poor night of sleep
● A shift in the immune state in the brain leading to inflammation which slows down how the brain communicates and creates an excessive loss of neurons, which are brain cells.
● Impaired blood flow and oxygen prevents the brain from receiving the proper nutrients it needs to function at the highest level possible.
Exercise is one of the few things that can be done which impacts all of these. Specifically physical exercise causes the release of as growth factors. Growth factors are chemicals released in the brain that stimulate tissue repair, cell growth, health, and survival. Beyond growth factors, exercise reduces inflammation, supports energy production, and strengthens the connections between areas of the brain.
Wow right, exercise does a lot but it doesn’t stop there. It also decreases the risk of high blood pressure and heart disease5. Both of which are high-risk factors for developing dementia. Besides those two risks, what are some other lifestyle risk factors?
● Physical inactivity
● Poor diet
● Type 2 diabetes
From this list, we can see that certain lifestyle changes can prevent dementia. We can also see that physical exercise both directly and indirectly supports brain health through its beneficial effect on the heart, lungs, and blood sugar.
This means that for full-body-mind healing and prevention, a holistic approach is needed. If these lifestyle adjustments seem overwhelming, that’s why Idaho Brain & Body Institute is here to help.
What Type Of Physical Exercise Is The Best
Now that we’ve covered physical exercise can prevent dementia, what kind of exercise is the most beneficial that you can do?
Studies show that aerobic exercise has the highest success rate in maintaining heightened brain function and memory. It makes sense because aerobic exercise is anything that elevates the heart rate – which increases blood flow to the brain. This type of exercise has also been shown to increase the size of the hippocampus -which is the memory and learning center of the brain. It’s no surprise then that in neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, the hippocampus is the first place to show signs of atrophy.
The fact that physical exercise can prevent the hippocampus from shrinking and actually increase its size is absolutely incredible! This goes to show that physical exercise is of the utmost importance for maintaining brain health. And here’s the best news: physical exercise is something you can do, starting now, to prevent dementia.
Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean you have to go to the gym for 2 hours a day. Taking 30 minutes or less while doing a mix of aerobic exercises plus some weight lifting is part of keeping your brain sharp.
Ways You Can Increase Your Physical Activity
Feeling inspired yet to get that heart rate pumping? If not, no worries – here’s a list to
help you get started:
● Start briskly walking 5 days a week with a close friend or by yourself. Socializing is another great way to keep the brain active. Plus, the added bonus of spending time outdoors has a multitude of its own health benefits.
● Find a local indoor pool and do aqua aerobics. Exercising in water takes the pressure off of bones and joints, and is quite enjoyable to do.
● Find easy and accessible at-home exercises to perform. The internet can be a wondrous tool and is very helpful when it comes to finding at-home exercise routines.
● Gardening, cleaning, and yard work. Yup, that’s right – simple, everyday chores can become enjoyable with the intention of physical activity. Know that you’re doing your body a favor when sweeping or mopping the floors, which can help make those less than fun jobs not so tenuous.
Tips For Success
We all know how difficult and overwhelming it can be to start exercising, so here’s a list to help you find your way to success.
● Write it into your schedule, carving out specific times for exercise. Once it’s part ofyour routine, it will be easier to remember to do.
● Do what makes you feel good. Find a physical activity that you enjoy, because if
you’re having fun then you will hardly notice that you’re exercising, and it will be easier to stick to.
● Exercise with your partner or friends. Exercising with people you love makes it more enjoyable.
● Listen to your body. Don’t overdo it, and if you start to feel pain, stop immediately.
● Ease into your exercise routine. Start out slow. If exercise is something new to you, then start with only 10 to 15 minutes a day, increasing as you feel yourself growing stronger.
● Do what you feel capable of doing and know that building strength, muscle, and endurance takes time and patience.
● Thoroughly warm up before jumping into cardio workouts. Stretching and yoga are great ways to start.
Various types of dementia are rapidly increasing with alzheimer’s being the most common type. You don’t have to accept your fate as the process starts years before a diagnosis is ever made.
Physical exercise is something you can start doing today to protect your brain. Unfortunately, neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia are so complex and can occur for a multitude of reasons, physical exercise is not a one-way ticket to prevention. But, it’s a start in the right direction.
If you feel like you need support with your brain health, Idaho Brain & Body Institute is here for you. We use the BMB Method (brain, mind, and body) to evaluate you as a whole individual. This means we don’t just look at your brain, but every aspect of your mind and body that contributes to where you are now and how it influences where you want to be.
If you would like help and not go at this alone, here’s what our BMB Method evaluation looks like:
● Evaluating brain function by using balance, brain waves, and eye movements.
● Looking deeper into past traumas, both physical and emotional that might be affecting your brain and mental health.
● Evaluating body functions as a whole by studying symptoms and lab results.
If the BMB method sounds right to you, and you’re ready to take control of your brain health, then request a consultation today!
1 (Ahlskog, PhD, MD et al., 2011)
2 (What Is Dementia?, n.d.)
3 (Aerobic Exercise May Protect Aging Brains From Dementia Symptoms, 2019)
4 (What Are Growth Factors?(Growth Factor Definition), n.d.)
5 (Aerobic Exercise May Protect Aging Brains From Dementia Symptoms, 2019)
6 (Cottier, 2021