Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia and is thought to affect roughly 26.6 million people across the globe.
A lot about Alzheimer’s is still not understood, so there is no cure. But there are a lot of medicines that can treat the symptoms. However, there is also mounting evidence linking exercise to the treatment and prevention of Alzheimer’s.
But why is exercise effective and how efficient is it for treating and preventing Alzheimer’s?
How effective is exercise?
We all know exercise is good for you, and that it can help with a multitude of illnesses and ailments, but to what degree is actually effective when it comes to Alzheimer’s?
There have been a few trials into the proper, measureable effects of exercise as a treatment for Alzheimer’s. One notable study was conducted across five nursing homes in the States.
In this study, the residents of the nursing home did a collective exercise program that consisted of twice weekly strength, balance and flexibility training and twice weekly 1-hour walks. The control group had regular routine medical care in the same period.
The results of the study were astounding. Those who participated in the exercise were found to have a “significant difference” in the rate of decline versus the routine medical care group.
The 12-month mean treatment differences were shown to be highly effective. There was proven to be no adverse effects as a result of the exercise either.
In another similar study conducted in Australia, randomly selected volunteers were put on an exercise regime and the effects were measured on their cognitive ability, using the Alzheimer Disease Assessment Scale-Cognitive Subscale (ADAS-Cog).
The results of the Australian study were very similar to the American one. Those who did not participate in the exercise were shown to have deteriorated 1.04 points on the ADAS-Cog scale.
However, those who did participate in exercise were actually shown to have improved. The exercise group improved by 0.73 points after 18 months.
Why is exercise effective?
There are a couple of theories as to why exercise is good at fighting Alzheimer’s. To understand why, you need to know a few things about Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer’s is not very well understood, but it has largely been associated with a few factors.
1. An increase in amyloid plaques.
These are plaques that grow in the brain and, although exactly how it works hasn’t been fully understood, it’s generally the more plaques, the more severe Alzheimer’s gets.
2. Shrinking of the hippocampus.
The hippocampus is responsible for short-term memory to long-term memory formation, as well as organisation and storage. A decrease in the size of the hippocampus can be a very early warning sign of Alzheimer’s, as it can occur well before other symptoms are present.
3. High blood pressure.
When you have high blood pressure, capillaries are destroyed, which reduces the flow of blood and nutrients to the brain.
However, when you exercise you don’t just work out your muscles, you work out your brain too. Exercise has been shown to increase the growth of new capillaries in the brain, meaning that there is increased blood flow to the hippocampus and therefore increased memory retention.
Exercise also increases the levels of certain proteins in the brain. Brain-derived neurotrophic factors (BNDF) are shown to help neurons develop and survive, as well as ultimately function in a normal capacity.
In certain studies (here and here) with animals, exercise was even shown to deplete beta-amyloids in the brain. Beta-amyloids are the primary component of amyloid plaques, which have been associated with Alzheimer’s.
What does this mean?
It means you should exercise! Exercise has so many benefits outside of simply helping prevent Alzheimer’s that it really is worth it.
However, if you do feel that you are at risk of Alzheimer’s, a good exercise regime can really help.
If you need to improve your fitness regime, there are loads of resources to help. We’ve got a great post here on how to improve your fitness if you’re over 50 and there are plenty of resources on the NHS website that look at low-impact exercises to help stay healthy as you get older.
YouTube is also a great resource for exercise videos that can help you get fit at home! There are plenty of exercise channels specifically dedicated to people looking to get fitter later in life.
As with anything, if you suspect you or someone you know has any symptoms of Alzheimer’s, you should consult your GP immediately.