I have written about Alzheimer’s disease several times over the years and it always attracts a huge response from readers. Why? With all the daunting aspects associated with aging, the thing that seems to scare us the most is Alzheimer’s, a progressive disease that gradually gets worse over time.
Early on there’s memory loss, quite common among those of us as we age, and I have my fair share at age 76. But as the disease progresses, not only is memory lost, but there is also an inability to converse and respond appropriately to what is happening around you.
Unfortunately, despite the investment of countless millions of dollars in Alzheimer’s research by big pharmaceutical companies, a cure has not been found. Worse, it appears that aging, something we all want to do, is the biggest risk factor. A hereditary link is possible, but even so, lifestyle and environment are key factors. Since there is no cure, is it possible to delay the onset or better yet prevent this dreaded disease?
Can exercise help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease?
It’s too early to be conclusive, but considerable evidence is growing that regular exercise can be very effective.
A comprehensive review of research in this area published in Frontiers of Neuroscience in 2020 provides some insights. In a nutshell, two main findings were highlighted. One, being physically inactive is one of the most common preventable risk factors for developing it [Alzheimer’s disease]and higher levels of physical activity are associated with a reduced risk of [Alzheimer’s disease] development.”
And two, if you are diagnosed with the disease, exercise appears to be effective in improving several neuropsychiatric symptoms of [Alzheimer’s disease]especially cognitive function.
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A recent focus of notable research is the effect of exercise on the parts of the brain most associated with disease. In particular, regular exercise may play a role in reducing atrophy of the hippocampus, a region involved in memory and learning which, in turn, promotes cognitive function. And even more encouraging, research in mice has shown that exercise can promote the development of new nerve cells in the hippocampus.
What is the best exercise to help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease?
Most research has supported aerobic exercise, especially brisk walking because it is easily accessible and more enjoyable than many other types of exercise. Until recently, my take on the primary benefit of exercise as a key positive lifestyle factor when it comes to preventing Alzheimer’s disease was that it uniquely challenged the brain. This is based on the role of keeping the mind active by challenging it with crossword puzzles and the like, which makes sense.
However, walking, even if we take it for granted, offers the brain a much bigger challenge than solving a puzzle.
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Imagine the amount and intensity of brain activity involved in each phase. To walk effectively, the right foot swings forward, an action controlled by the left side of the brain. Countless decisions have to be made regarding how much to move the foot forward, how to place the foot in contact with the walking surface, which muscles to contract and when to generate the right amount of force, and which other muscles to relax and get out of the way. . This all has to be done in a fraction of a second, and is immediately followed by a shift of the left foot forward and instantaneous activation of the right side of the brain. This occurs back and forth at the speed of light with every step.
The latest research on test-tube cell cultures suggests that the positive effects of exercise go beyond the intricate neuromuscular challenge described above. When muscles contract to produce movement, there is not only a complex and coordinated effort, but there are also chemical signals from the contracting muscle cells that stimulate the hippocampal cells to grow and be more active. Additionally, other brain segments can be stimulated to grow new nerves.
Not only is aerobic exercise a potential source for this type of activity, but an even greater impact can be found with resistance training exercise caused by increased contraction strength.
Do people exercise less as they get older?
With so much promise tied to the effects of exercise as a measure against the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease, you’d think that every older American would be out there walking and lifting weights. I hope that. But there are signs of progress, and I’d like to share a note from a reader that gives me hope.
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I was so excited to read your column on resistance training and weight lifting and I agree with everything you wrote. The increase in my strength and balance was beyond my hopes. My short story is that I was facing my 80th birthday in 2021 and my whole family was going to be coming to Alaska, where I live, to celebrate. Earlier that year, I was weak, suffering from balance issues and lack of energy, and knew something needed to be done. This was not how I wanted to live! I found an excellent personal trainer and signed up for 12 sessions. To say I liked it at first is a lie, but the results were so fast and so noticeable that I knew I had to do 12 more sessions. Since then, my schedule has been twice a week at the gym working out on my own and walking a mile or more the other days. I feel strong, I’m no longer afraid to walk on uneven terrain and my body composition has changed dramatically. It’s a sad fact that so few in my age group are motivated to exercise and I go the extra mile to get them, even by broadcasting your columns.”
Thanks for the great note and the perfect example of what I’ve been preaching about exercise for decades. It’s never too late to start and the results, as you so admirably demonstrate, can be life changing in a very positive way. It’s the closest thing we have to a proverbial fountain of youth.
Reach Bryant Stamford, professor of kinesiology and integrative physiology at Hanover College, at [email protected].
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