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How exercise can help prevent dementia

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Rashelle Brown

This article is reprinted by permission from  .

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.

It makes sense, then, that so many people feel a powerless kind of fear when pondering their cognitive futures. A big question mark looming out there beyond age 65: “Will I get it, or will I be lucky?” 

Related : Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease: How to spot — and prevent — them

Happily, according to leading brain scientists, luck has little to do with it for most people.

Prevention, the magic pill

While there is 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,” Sherzai explained. “We give them interventions, give them advice on changes they can make to their lifestyle components and we look at what happens.”

Also see: Can lack of sleep lead to dementia?

Exercise your way to better brain health

Of the five components in Sherzai’s lifestyle intervention, exercise is the one he typically recommends implementing 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,” Sherzai said.

After only a few weeks of regular exercise, his patients often feel better, get better sleep and their lipid and blood glucose profiles improve. Sherzai explained 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.

He also listed three direct links between exercise and improved brain health:

  • First direct benefit:  Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, which delivers more oxygen and nutrients.

  • Second direct benefit:  It simultaneously flushes inflammatory and oxidative elements out the brain faster. “Cognitive decline starts vascularly,” Sherzai said, “and exercise helps with this more than anything else.

  • Third direct benefit:  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.

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