Daily exercise is known to be beneficial for body and mind, but a new study presented at the 2019 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference (AAIC) in Los Angeles has found physical activity may also protect the brain from Alzheimer’s disease.
“There are steps we can take that could help delay the progression of Alzheimer’s disease,” says Dr. Jenny Rabin, the study’s lead author and neuropsychology lead at Sunnybrook’s Harquail Centre for Neuromodulation. “Higher levels of daily physical activity may protect against the cognitive decline and loss of brain tissue that is associated with Alzheimer’s disease.”
Experts say Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia and is not a normal part of aging. It is a progressive disease that deteriorates memory, thinking skills, and eventually the ability to carry out daily activities, such as bathing and dressing.
There are over 564,000 Canadians who are currently living with dementia. It’s estimated that by 2031, that number will climb to 937,000.
The benefits of exercise for the brain
Amyloid and tau are the two proteins associated with Alzheimer’s disease and begin to accumulate in the brain long before memory and thinking difficulties become apparent. This study shows that the protective effects of physical activity can be seen in the preclinical stage of the disease, when individuals have a build-up of amyloid and tau, but are not yet experiencing prominent memory or thinking difficulties.
“There is no cure for Alzheimer’s and there are currently no disease-modifying therapies, so it is critical to investigate risk factors that can be targeted and have the potential to change the course of the disease,” says Dr. Rabin.
Exercising more isn’t the only way to help improve your brain health. The study findings also suggest that lowering vascular risk factors, such as obesity, high blood pressure or tobacco smoking, may offer additional protection against Alzheimer’s disease.
“The research shows us that taking preventative measures and making lifestyle changes early on, could help delay or slow the progression of the disease,” Dr. Rabin explains.
Further investigation is needed to better understand how physical activity may help protect the brain from Alzheimer’s disease. Possibilities include increased blood flow to the brain or the development of new neurons, which help with memory and learning.
How much exercise can help boost my brain health?
In the study, carried out at Massachusetts General Hospital, researchers tracked the physical activity of 182 individuals, ages 60 and older using a pedometer. These individuals were then followed for up to seven years, undergoing annual cognitive assessments and brain scans every two to three years.
“Our findings suggest that taking around 8,900 steps per day can help provide the protective benefits,” says Dr. Rabin. “Additional research needs to be done to determine exactly what kind of exercise is best and the duration needed, but we found that even modest levels of physical activity can help protect the brain.”