June is National Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness month, and chances are, someone in your family or someone you know, suffers from Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is a progressive and irreversible neurodegenerative disease that impairs memory and cognitive function. The disease can start out as simply forgetting words or having short-term memory loss. As the disease progresses, simple tasks and activities of daily living become difficult making it nearly impossible for individuals to be independent.
AD currently affects over 50 million people worldwide and it is predicted that by 2030, that number will climb to 100 million. It is the most common cause of dementia and while it can begin as early as age 30, symptoms generally appear around age 65. While the exact cause is still unknown, age is the biggest risk factor. Other risk factors include family history, cardiovascular disease risk factors, one’s education level, social and cognitive activity, traumatic brain injury, and MCI (mild cognitive impairment).
While many risk factors are uncontrollable, one that is the most controllable is exercise. Although more research is needed, studies have shown high levels of physical activity are associated with reducing the risk of developing the disease. Aerobic activity specifically is shown to increase BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor) levels in the central nervous system. BDNF is a specific gene molecule that promotes brain cell growth. It’s referred to as “fertilizer” for the brain. Exercise is one of the best ways to boost your BDNF levels.
Research shows that low-to moderate intensity exercise increases blood flow in the brain, which increases neural activation and changes in brain metabolism. As a result, hippocampal volume increases and improvements in neurogenesis is seen. Basically, exercise (especially aerobic and skill-based) has been shown to promote new brain cells and create new networks. Studies suggest exercising 4-5 times/week, 20-60 minutes/bout.
While any activity can be beneficial to your health, specifically aerobic activities are seen to be the most effective. By definition, aerobic means “requiring oxygen”, and aerobic activities are any activities that can be done in a rhythmical fashion, utilizing large muscle groups. Walking is one of the easiest modes of aerobic activity. It’s something we all know how to do and utilizes a lot of muscle groups and can be done anywhere. Other great examples are running, biking, cross-country skiing, and swimming. In addition to these types of activities, it’s also extremely important as we age, to incorporate “new” skill-based activities. These could include using a piece of cardio equipment that you’ve never used before, taking a dance class, or taking a step-aerobics class where you have to learn various choreographed moves.
While our genetics can play a role in how we age, studies show that it’s a very small part, only 25%. We are products of our environment, lifestyle and behaviors, so it’s important to incorporate healthy habits early on in our life that can be carried out into our later years. This month specifically, work towards making your overall health a priority!
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Mattson MP. Pathways towards and away from Alzheimer’s disease. Nature. 2004; 430:631–639.
Rao AK, Chou A, Bursley B, Smulofsky J, Jezequel J. Systematic review of the effects of exercise on activities of daily living in people with Alzheimer’s disease. Am J Occup Ther. 2014;68(1):50-56.
A native of North Carolina, Gina currently lives in Charlotte, and has been in the fitness industry since 1990. During that time, her roles have included strength coach, personal trainer, college instructor, and competitive athlete (both bodybuilding and Olympic-style weightlifting). Upon completion of her bachelor’s degree from Appalachian State University she relocated to CO where she interned at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Her primary role there was to instruct resident athletes on the Olympic lifts. She relocated to Charlotte in 1996 where she worked for the YMCA and then later began her career in 1998 as a fitness equipment consultant. She holds a master’s degree in Exercise Science and Sports Nutrition and holds multiple certifications through NASM, NSCA, and ISSN. She enjoys camping, mountain biking, working out and hiking, all of which she does with her dog Pia.