Dementia: Time to fight back

This post is the first in a series on dementia.

3399959245_3196042ea3Dementia refers to a group of symptoms that cause mental decline, such as memory loss and difficulties communicating and problem solving. There are many conditions that cause dementia, the most common one being Alzheimer’s disease (AD). The main risk factors for AD are age and family history.

Currently, there isn’t a pharmaceutical cure for AD or for other irreversible forms of dementia. Some medications can help reduce symptoms. Though there isn’t a cure, there are some things that you can do to lower your risk of living with dementia in later years.

Making the right health choices and taking on healthy habits such as good nutrition, regular exercise, stress reduction, maintaining social interactions and mental stimulation can decrease your chances of getting the disease. There is no guarantee that healthy habits work for everyone. However, you will stand a better chance of living a happier and healthier life if you commit to a healthy lifestyle.

Physical exercise and brain health

Exercise may not only keep you fit from the neck down, but also from the neck up. There’s strong evidence that physical exercise can regenerate your brain, even if you start exercising in later adult years.

Inside our brains, there are two regions that respond to physical exercise – the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus. The prefrontal cortex involves complex thinking and problem solving. The hippocampus is responsible for memory and spatial orientation. As we age, both these regions decrease in volume. In AD, the hippocampus significantly shrinks and deteriorates.

Three studies (click here, here and here) show that regular exercise in older adults (60 to 80+ years) improves memory and increases the size of the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus regions of the brain. It’s unclear what causes growth in these areas, though it appears to be due to an increase in blood flow, neurons and brain cells. Scientists conclude that the brain in late adulthood is highly modifiable. Exercise has the potential to protect people with a genetic risk for AD by helping the brain re-grow in areas associated with memory and problem solving.

Exercises to prevent cognitive decline

The most important thing to do is to move regularly. It’s never too late to start a physical exercise programme. If you never exercised before, make sure that you start slowly and receive professional coaching. Fitness programmes should be tailored to your age, heart rate and general health.

Regular exercise should be moderate in intensity but it doesn’t have to be overly strenuous. People of all ages can benefit from brisk walking for 30 to 45 minutes three to five days a week; some prefer to brisk walk 20 minutes every day. Other cardiovascular exercises include swimming, cycling and running.

For brain health, it is recommended to alternate cardiovascular exercises with muscle training. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends at least two and a half hours of moderate cardiovascular activity along with muscle training exercises for two or more days a week. If the exercises are demanding, easy activities, such as simple walking, can benefit cognitive function.

Regular exercise in midlife can improve thinking and memory in later life. As we age, brain cells die. However, there is evidence that keeping physically fit increases the size of brain structures that would typically shrink with age.

First photo credit: Skipnclick
Second photo credit: Jonathan Marmorstein
Julie Zimmer

Julie has extensive experience in nursing practice and education in a wide range of fields from intensive/coronary care, to medical-surgical to community and public health. Julie has Bachelor Degrees in Psychology and Nursing, and a Master’s Degree in Community Health Nursing Education. She has taught in faculties of nursing and in various communities in Toronto, Canada and in Geneva, Switzerland, and is a consultant to the International Council of Nurses (ICN). Julie also has years of experience teaching English as a foreign language (EFL) in addition to coordinating an English department in a Swiss private school.

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