Dementia is on the rise worldwide and is expected to reach 153 million people by 2050, up from 57 million in 2017, barring no breakthrough treatments being discovered. The condition is one of the world’s leading causes of death and disease, and common risk factors of dementia include obesity, diabetes and smoking.
But don’t let this grim outlook leave you feeling hopeless; there are very effective ways to take preventative action in reducing your risk of dementia. And knowing how to take your health into your own hands is an empowering feeling.
One clear way to prevent dementia is with regular exercise—which can prevent and potentially reverse the disease, even at low amounts of light activity.
What is dementia?
Dementia is not a single defined disease but a collection of possible changes such as memory loss, cognitive deterioration, and changes in usual personality that affect daily life. This could mean interference in job performance, independent living, social skills or mood changes.
The most well-known form of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, accounting for about 70% of all dementia cases worldwide. When examining preventative measures like exercise, research on preventing dementia in general or Alzheimer’s is valuable.
How exercise prevents dementia
There are so many benefits to being active regularly, including preventing many diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, metabolic disease and some cancers. We can confidently add dementia and cognitive decline to that list.
Research on exercise as a brain-boosting activity has been ongoing for quite some time. The Mayo Clinic stated in 2011 that “rapidly growing literature strongly suggests that exercise, specifically aerobic exercise, may attenuate cognitive impairment and reduce dementia risk.”
Flash forward to more recently, and the evidence has continued to pile in. In January 2022, a study published in The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association found that exercise increases protein levels demonstrated to strengthen message pathways between brain cells by way of synapses. Even for those people who already show signs of plaques, tangles and other signs of cognitive disease, the protective action of exercise and the specific protein increase was at work. This effect may be a fundamental means of thwarting dementia.
On top of this recent discovery, an abundance of other studies have found that increased physical activity levels are associated with a reduced risk of dementia in older adults. The exciting news is that exercise has been shown to reduce dementia risk by an astounding 30% to 80%. It is clear that making time to be physically active is incredibly valuable in the fight against rising rates of dementia.
How to prevent dementia with exercise
Any type of regular physical activity is beneficial for preventing dementia. Research shows that even low amounts of light-intensity activity are adequate. What’s more, evidence of the beneficial brain-boosting effects can be seen in as few as 6 to 8 weeks.
Putting this into practice means choosing an activity you enjoy and committing to it. It could be walking, cycling, swimming, gardening, strength training or organized adult team sports. Starting at any age will lead to results. Many of these studies have been done on older individuals who are the most likely to be thinking about their future cognitive health. Of course, the younger you start and stay consistent, the more likely you will ward off dementia and other forms of disease as well.
The most thoroughly studied form of exercise for preventing dementia is cardiovascular training. Any form of movement that increases your heart rate is considered cardiovascular exercise, so strength training that includes circuits or shorter rest periods is also included.
Cardiovascular exercise has two significant benefits: it boosts blood flow to the brain and reduces your resting heart rate. A normal resting heart rate is 60 to 80 beats per minute (bpm). A higher resting heart rate (RHR) has been linked to an increased risk of dementia. Adults who are relatively fit may have an RHR under 60. Higher rates, toward the 80 and above range, are linked to health risks such as metabolic syndrome. For individuals older than 65, an RHR above 80 is poor.
Researchers believe that high blood pressure and heart rate can lead to dementia due to a lack of blood and oxygen getting to the brain. Sedentary individuals have at least a 30% increased risk of dementia and are the most likely to have higher resting heart rates. Inflammation, high blood sugar, and high cholesterol are other factors that may contribute to dementia—all health risks that are successfully combatted with cardiovascular exercise.
Get active no matter your age
Being active when you are older comes with a plethora of benefits, including more extended independent living, reduced risk of disease, better bone health and less chance of fractures, better brain health, and of course, a higher quality of life. What’s more, there’s evidence that your twilight years are made for being active—something researchers call the “active grandparent hypothesis.”
Exercising specifically in your senior years helps maintain and improve muscle and cartilage, releases antioxidants, quells inflammation, repairs cells, reduces fat stores and increases blood flow. So, find something you love doing and do it often—this is evolution’s way of helping extend life as healthy, vibrant older adults that enjoy their remaining years with physical and mental strength intact.