Written by Madhura Salvi
Dementia is a term used to describe a group of conditions characterised by the gradual impairment of brain function.1 An individual’s health and functional ability decline as the condition progresses, their personality may also change as a result. While there are many forms of dementia, the best known is Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s can be defined as a progressive disorder that affects the brain health and other important functions. It is an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills and eventually, the ability to carry out the simplest tasks.6
It is estimated that in 2020 there are between 400,000 and 459,000 Australians with dementia with Alzheimer’s disease accounting for up to 70% of diagnosed cases.1 The thought of developing dementia and sometimes Alzheimer’s itself can be bothersome, especially if you’ve witnessed a near one affected by it. While majority of advice suggests hoping for dementia to not affect you and wait for a pharmaceutical cure, but the truth is more encouraging.
Alzheimer’s is a complex disease with multiple risk factors.2 Risks such as age and genetics are outside your control. However, factors for a brain-healthy lifestyle are within your control, one of these is regular physical activity or exercise. Other lifestyle factors that need to be considered are stress management, restful sleep, mental stimulation, healthy diet, social engagement and vascular health.
Importance of exercise in Alzheimer’s
Studies show that people who are physically active are less likely to experience a decline in their mental function, have a lowered risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, and possibly have improved thinking among people with vascular cognitive impairment.3 Evidence suggests that only a small number of people aged over 65 – fewer than 20% – engage in an adequate level of physical activity, while people who have dementia are even less likely to engage in such activity.5
Though less research has been done with healthy older people, there is some evidence acknowledging that people can also reduce their risk of dementia by up to 50 percent with regular exercise.4
Alzheimer’s is not limited to old age, but in fact can start in the brain long before symptoms are detected, often in middle age. That means that it is never too early to start taking care of your brain health. Physical exercise is also essential for maintaining adequate blood flow to the brain and may stimulate brain cell growth and survival.5
People who are regularly physically active are less likely to experience heart disease and stroke, the factors associated with an increased risk of developing dementia. Exercise is also important to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity, all of which are risk factors for dementia.5
Guidelines for exercise
Being physically active throughout your life can help to preserve your cognitive function. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise each week. The ideal plan involves a combination of
- sustained aerobic exercise
- strength, weight, or resistance training
- flexibility and balance training.
Regular aerobic exercise, including walking, in sessions of at least 30 minutes has been found to be beneficial for cognitive health.4 It improves general physical health and increases blood flow to the brain. Moderate levels of resistance training help to increase muscle mass, as well as maintain brain health. For those over 65, adding a few strength sessions to the weekly routine may cut the risk of Alzheimer’s to half.4
Injuries to the head from falls are an increasing risk with age, which further increases the risk for development of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Flexibility and balance exercises strengthen the spine and supporting muscles and improve coordination and balance, thus help you stay agile and avoid falls. Once you are exercising regularly, you will need to update your goals to keep progressing.
Where to start with the right advise
Adding just modest amounts of physical activity to your weekly routine can have a profound effect on your health. Choose activities that you enjoy and start small and gradually build up the momentum and self-confidence.
Physical exercise should be continued for as long as possible for people with dementia, as it has been found to have several benefits. It can help prevent muscle weakness, mobility problems and other health complications associated with inactivity. Exercise also plays a part in reducing stress and depression, which are commonly experienced by people with dementia.5
An exercise program should be incorporated into a person’s lifestyle in the early stages of dementia to maintain and reduce the effects of the condition through progression, extending the benefits to health and well-being for as long as possible. During moderate to late stages of dementia, support and encouragement from family, carers and service providers is important to ensure that an exercise program is maintained.
A structured exercise program and follow up with trained persons such as Accredited Exercise Physiologists can be very helpful. Exercise Physiologists are qualified Allied Health professionals who specialise in the benefits of exercise to help people get fitter for overall health, or to treat patients with a medical condition. Exercise physiologists are knowledgeable about the effects that exercise has on the body and can prescribe a course of exercises for fitness, rehabilitation, or both. Also, using family, friends, and volunteers to motivate can help to ensure this.
Making a start is important, but so is making physical activity a permanent part of your daily life.
- Dementia – Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2020). Retrieved 18 October 2020, from https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/australias-health/dementia
- Preventing Alzheimer’s Disease – HelpGuide.org. (2020). Retrieved 18 October 2020, from https://www.helpguide.org/articles/alzheimers-dementia-aging/preventing-alzheimers-disease.htm
- Can exercise prevent memory loss in Alzheimer’s?. (2020). Retrieved 18 October 2020, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alzheimers-disease/expert-answers/alzheimers-disease/faq-20057881#:~:text=Exercising%20several%20times%20a%20week,disease%20or%20mild%20cognitive%20impairment
- Physical exercise and dementia. (2020). Retrieved 18 October 2020, from https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/about-dementia/risk-factors-and-prevention/physical-exercise#:~:text=Combining%20the%20results%20of%2011,reduced%20by%2045%20per%20cent.
- Retrieved 18 October 2020, from https://www.dementia.org.au/sites/default/files/helpsheets/Helpsheet-DementiaQandA08-PhysicalExercise_english.pdf
- What Is Alzheimer’s Disease? (2020). Retrieved 18 October 2020, from https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/what-alzheimers-disease