Exercise: the Best Medicine for Beating Back Dementia

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than 5 million Americans are currently living with Alzheimer’s. That means that every 66 seconds, a new diagnosis is made. Many of us are, unfortunately, familiar with the rapid onset and cruel, unsettling symptoms of this disease, by virtue of watching a loved one go through it. With no cure on the immediate horizon, it is easy to feel powerless in the face of such a vicious foe. While we may not be able to claim full victory over Alzheimer’s yet, we can take certain steps to mitigate its symptoms, and help our loved ones live longer, fuller lives in the process. In this case, we can literally “take steps” against dementia, harnessing the power of exercise to combat Alzheimer’s and turn back the clock on aging.

Dementia is a broad term, describing the list of symptoms that occur when the brain is affected by certain diseases or conditions, of which there are over 100. Among elderly populations, Alzheimer’s accounts for 60-70 percent of cases, with other conditions, such as Parkinson’s Disease, Vascular dementia, and dementia with Lewy Bodies making up the bulk of the remaining cases. While these different classifications are important to note, it should also be recognized that, in most cases, the symptoms greatly overlap, and are thus able to be addressed using similar approaches.

One such approach that is universally agreed to be perhaps the best medicine for age-related dementia and decline is exercise. According to the Alzheimer’s Society, “Leading a physically active lifestyle can have a significant impact on the wellbeing of people with dementia. Exercise is beneficial for physical and mental health and may improve the quality of life for people in all stages of the condition.” Benefits of exercise for those suffering from dementia include:

-Improved heart and blood vessel health

-Maintenance and improvement of functional levels; patients are able to complete their daily tasks, such as dressing, cleaning, and cooking, allowing them to retain their independence for longer.

-Better strength, conditioning, and balance, helping patients to avoid falling and the functional declines associated with hip fractures or other major injuries.

-Enhanced mental cognition; studies show that exercise may have a positive effect on memory and perhaps even slow the process of mental decline

-Improved confidence, self-esteem, and mood, as well as reduced feelings of isolation by providing potential social outlets (i.e. walking or gardening groups)

While the type, intensity, and duration of exercise best for each individual dementia patient will depend on a whole host of factors, including previous exercise history, current fitness, age, and stage of dementia, the underlying prescription remains constant: get moving! It is recommended that those who fall within the early to middle stages of dementia undertake 150 minutes of moderately strenuous physical activity each week, or 30 minutes per day, at least 5 days per week. These bouts can be broken down into smaller increments throughout the day as well, as long as each session is a minimum of 10 minutes in duration. There are many different activities that could fulfill these requirements, but here at AlterG, we are partial to that good, old-fashioned, tried and true health-booster: walking!

In an earlier blog post, we detailed the amazing preventative and restorative powers of walking on the AlterG Anti-Gravity Treadmill™ when it comes to fighting back against Hospital Associated Decline (HAD), and in many ways, the same story rings true for dementia. What’s more, when patients opt to “do the moonwalk” over mundane earth jaunting, they receive the added benefit of total safety and comfort, allowing them to focus on getting the most out of their workout instead of fretting about falling or joint discomfort. Therapists can also take their dementia patients through balance and agility tasks while they walk, such as ball throwing or single leg squats, helping to reinforce complete, holistic fitness: strength, cardiovascular conditioning, and balance/proprioception.

Want further proof of the brain-boosting, wellness panacea that is exercise? How about some research touting its anti-dementia, proactive and protective properties? We’ve got you covered.

According to Bryan James, an epidemiologist at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago, “(Brain decline) is simply not pre-destined for all human beings. Lots of people live into their 90s and even 100s with no symptoms of dementia.” This statement is bolstered by a recent, ground breaking study done by Neuroscientist, Art Kramer, Director of the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois. Kramer’s study involved scanning the brains of 120 older adults, half of whom began a regimen of moderate aerobic exercise of just 45 minutes of walking, 3 days per week. One year later, Kramer re-scanned the participants’ brains. His findings? For the exercise group, brain volume actually increased! Further testing affirmed that increased brain volume enhanced memory and cognition. The sedentary group? They didn’t fare so well. After that same year, they lost an average of 1.5 percent of their brain volume, meaning that there was now a 3.5 percent difference in volume between the active and inactive individuals, a staggering result for such a short timeframe.

So, the moral of the story (or rather, this post), is the same refrain that you have come to know and love us for evangelizing: Exercise! Exercise! Exercise! The method is less important; run, jump, dance, cartwheel through a field of daises, if that’s your cup of tea, as long as you are getting that heart ticking, those muscles working, and that sweat dripping. Of course, we think it would be pretty silly to settle for earth-bound activities when you could take your talents to the moon instead. After all, defying age becomes a lot less daunting when you can defy gravity.