How Exercise May Lower Your Risk of Dementia
Even a small amount of physical activity is good for your brain. As people age, cognitive function tends to naturally decline. This may just mean you become a bit more forgetful or that it takes you longer to solve complex problems. But you may also be concerned about developing dementia or Alzheimer’s disease when you get older.
By the year 2050, it is estimated that over 115 million people will have dementia worldwide. But there may be things you can do to lower your chance of being part of that statistic. One of them is easy to do—you can exercise.
Your brain may not even need much exercise to reap benefits. Even a little bit may help lower the risk of developing dementia, according to a study published in December 2021. The study, which followed over 62,000 adults aged 65 and older, found that even small amounts of light-intensity physical activity lowered the risk of dementia by 14% compared to not being physically active. Activity levels in the study were equivalent to an 18-minute daily walk or an hour on the golf course once a week.
Another study in the journal Neurobiology of Aging showed that exercise appears to help keep the aging brain sharper. Findings were based on MRI scans indicating that physical brain age was slightly more than a half year younger for every flight of stairs a participant climbed daily compared to non-stair climbing participants.
Exercise has been shown to help memory and thinking in other studies, too. Regular aerobic exercise appears to boost the size of the hippocampus, the area of the brain involved in verbal memory and learning. Physical activity also reduces inflammation and stimulates the release of chemicals in the brain that affect the growth of new blood vessels and the health of brain cells.
That’s all good news for your brain! Aerobic exercise appears to be the best type of activity for keeping your brain sharp. Choose moderate-intensity activities such as walking, stair-climbing, swimming or dancing. Even everyday chores, such as cleaning the house or gardening, can help you meet your aerobic activity goal.
“To help protect your brain as you age, make exercise part of your daily routine,” says Adrian Burgos MD, PIH Health neurologist and medical director of the Comprehensive Stroke Center PIH Health Good Samaritan Hospital. “You don’t have to do a lot of exercise to help keep your brain stronger. Anything you can do is better than nothing. Start small and build up the amount of time or the intensity of what you do as you feel ready. Of course, check with your doctor before beginning any new physical activity.”
For more information about neurology services including Alzheimer's disease and dementia, please visit PIHHealth.org/Neuroscience.
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