Working Out Means Keeping Your Brain Healthy

by Brace Hayden for Montana 55

According the recent U.S. Census, the population older than 65 is predicted to double during the next 25 years, growing to 70 million by 2030.

Along with the swell of the senior tsunami, the prevalence of Alzheimer’s and other cognitive diseases is estimated to increase by as much as 70 percent with more than 7 million people affected in the next 10 to 15 years.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia. This disease results in widespread loss of memory, language and thinking skills as the brain’s nerve network gets clogged and tangled by attacking plaques. Research shows this process starts upwards of 30 to 50 years before the hallmark signs and symptoms arise such as struggling with word choice, losing your keys, or getting lost on your drive home. It affects one in every eight Americans older than 65 and 50 percent of the elderly more than 85. Epidemiologists predict that Montanans can expect an 81 percent increase in our afflicted residents totaling 29,000 by 2025.

Since there is no cure on the horizon, our best defenses are early detection, direct intervention and
prevention. The good news is progressive loss of intellectual function is not a normal part of the agingprocess. We can modify our lifestyle to prevent or dramatically reduce our risk of dementia. By actively reducing high blood pressure, high cholesterol and sedentary behaviors in the middle years, it can boost brain health in the senior years. Recent studies in Lancet Neurology Journal found that what is good for your cardiovascular system is good for your cognitive health.

If cardiovascular exercise could be put in a pill, it would be the safest and most cost-effective
medication to fight this deadly brain disease. Obesity, Type 2 diabetes (which roughly doubles your risk), depression, and sedentary lifestyle choices and inactivity are some of the biggest risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease. Reducing these risk factors in our population by 25 percent could prevent up to half-million future cases of the disease in the United States.

Why does 45 to 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise five to seven days per week dramatically reduce the risks of developing dementia?

Getting out for a power walk, dancing, a circuit training class, or swimming will help the brain get
sufficient oxygen to keep building its nerve networks. If our brain is deprived of life-sustaining oxygen with the above mentioned risky lifestyle behaviors, it wastes away like a fish out of water. A large quality study on the elderly in Finland found that seniors with higher weekly exercise levels could reduce their dementia risk by 30 to 40 percent compared with the low or sedentary activity level group. This study also found that physically active people tend to maintain better cognition and memory than the inactive group, and they also had substantially lower rates of different forms of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.

Plenty of rationale exists to increase your daily cardiovascular exercise, but exercising presents many
challenges for people. If exercising is uncomfortable due to joint pain or you are uncertain about the
appropriate steps to take build a home or gym program, schedule an appointment with a physical therapist. PTs are specialists in movement assessment and can help develop a custom exercise program for your level of fitness and limitations.

Brace Hayden, DPT, OCS, CSCS is a physical therapist that specializes in improving functional mobility, balance and vestibular therapy at Alpine Physical Therapy in Missoula.