Running has long been recognized as an exercise with a wide variety of benefits--including increased circulation, lowered blood pressure, decreased rates of heart disease, strengthened joints and muscles, and weight loss. However, recent research has included a startling discovery: running may have the ability to protect the brain from the effects of Alzheimer’s disease, both by delaying the onset and improving the quality of life of those already affected.
The population at risk of Alzheimer’s disease can be divided into three categories: a) those with at least one parent affected by the disease b) those who have been confirmed to have a genetic marker (such as the e4 gene) and c) those who have already exhibited signs of the disease and been diagnosed. Regular, moderate-intense exercise, although unable to mitigate the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s entirely, has been shown to generate improvements for all three groups.
For those who are not yet affected, exercise has been found to have certain preventative benefits (including benefits for those suffering from mental health issues). The hippocampi and temporal lobes (the parts of the brain associated with memory) have been found to be larger in physically fit adults. A 2010 study from the University of Pittsburgh confirmed that moderate exercise does indeed increase the volume of the hippocampus (and subsequently, improves memory function): establishing a clear causal link. In fact, exercise was further found to be able to actually reverse the effects of one-two years of the age-related decline in hippocampus size via increasing its volume by up to 2%, suggesting that being active may serve as a powerful factor in delaying the onset of memory loss caused by shrunken hippocampi.
Regarding those individuals who carry a genetic marker which puts them at risk of developing Alzheimer’s, a 2011 study performed by the Cleveland Clinic came to a similar conclusion after researchers conducted an eighteen-month trial. The researchers found that the hippocampi of subjects who had the e4 gene and did not exercise had diminished by almost 3%, while the hippocampi of those with the same gene who had exercised showed no shrinkage and, in fact, closely resembled the hippocampi of those which did not possess the e4 marker--a monumental demonstration of physical activity's ability to delay the development of Alzheimer's symptoms in at-risk individuals.
While exercise has been established to have an enormous preventative capacity (especially with the increasing popularity and availability of genetic testing), its benefits are even more relevant for those who have already been diagnosed. This is especially true given that it is possible to develop Alzheimer’s despite lacking family history or known increased genetic risk. This segment of the population may not have been actively watching, or being tested, for symptoms before the actual onset. Fortunately, Danish researchers have discovered that subjects who had already been formally diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and exercised for 180 minutes per week at 70-80% of their maximum heart rate obtained considerable benefits compared to the control group. Although they did not exhibit improved memory, the exercise group experienced improvements in attention and mental reactions, as well as fewer instances of depression, anxiety attacks, and bouts of irritability (the latter of which can be attributed specifically to heightened endorphin levels).
Furthermore, exercising presents a unique set of advantages in that, unlike any medication currently on the market, it actually decreases levels of phosphorylated tau protein in the brain-- and it does so without any negative side effects. Tau protein buildup is a natural phenomenon which occurs universally as aging progresses, but at a highly accelerated rate in persons with Alzheimer’s. Researchers at the Wake Forest School of Medicine have hypothesized that part of the reason exercise proves to be such an effective treatment stems from how, instead of targeting a specific symptom or issue, it poses massive benefits to the circulatory, coronary, and neurological systems simultaneously.
If you or a loved one have concerns that you are at risk for Alzheimer’s, studies have shown that it is most advantageous to begin an exercise routine as soon as possible (here are 5 exercises you can do without equipment). This allows you to accrue maximum benefits given both that Alzheimer’s is a product of aging and that it may be possible to incur cerebral changes long before actual symptoms manifest themselves. While it is impossible to cure Alzheimer’s, exercising is one preventative method that definitely can’t hurt --and the quality of life gained is well-worth the investment of time and effort.
Prioritize exercise. It's that simple. If you get enough, your memory, and your life, will likely be better. If you are someone that is worried about getting Alzheimer's, you should consult a doctor to come up with a personalized action plan. Here are some tips on how to find a doctor or therapist in Singapore. You can also speak to a doctor online on RingMD from wherever you are (just click the button below).
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