Research has shown that exercise can have a beneficial impact on five chronic medical conditions  heart disease, arthritis, high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity. But there is one other chronic medical condition for which exercise is equally helpful. It’s a condition that we seldom think about; in fact, one that we don’t even like to think, about let alone talk about…but one that many of us are deeply touched and impacted by. That condition is Alzheimer’s disease.     

“But I’m young, I’m fit and I’m healthy. Why do I need to care about Alzheimer’s?” Because as the American population ages, so too grows the number of people expected to develop this neurodegenerative disease. The Alzheimer’s Association states that in 2016, approx. 5.4 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s. That’s 1 in 9 individuals age 65 and over. And by the year 2050, it is estimated that this number is projected to rise to 13.8 million, a nearly three-fold increase. 

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What is Alzheimer’s?

In its simplest terms, and as most of us already know, Alzheimer’s is a brain disease that impairs and vanquishes people’s memory. Why this happens is still not completely known, but researchers believe there are certain underlying mechanisms occurring in the brain that contribute to this cognitive decline.  

According to data from the Mayo Clinic, scientists believe that Alzheimer’s, for most people, is caused by a combination of genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors. These factors contribute to its progression, and as more brain cells die, the brain begins to shrink in size. Confounding the picture are two “tell-tale” markers in the brain which are indicative of the disease; beta-amyloid plaques and tau protein tangles.

Beta amyloid plaques work similar to the plaques that can accumulate in our arteries and cause blockage to blood flow leading to heart failure or heart attack. Likewise, plaque formation that builds up outside the brain cells can cause blockage of communication between the neurons, leading to their gradual death.  

Tau protein tangles form inside the brain cells. An internal transportation system circulates nutrients throughout the neurons to keep them healthy and functioning properly. The orderly and normal functioning of this transport network depends on a protein called tau. In Alzheimer’s disease, these threads of tau proteins become twisted and tangled and clog the transport network, preventing cells from receiving the nourishment they require to live. The result is neuronal death.

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Prevention Through Exercise

Though research is feverishly trying to find a cure for this disease, right now the best way to approach Alzheimer’s is through prevention. And one of the most effective preventative measures, no surprise, is exercise. The question is, what kind of exercise? 

Research indicates that endurance physical activity, whether it’s hopping on a bike, jumping in the pool or even taking a brisk long walk, may help to delay or prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s. Surprisingly, the brain does have the capacity to regenerate new, healthy neurons. And coincidentally, the area of the brain where new neurons can develop is in a structure called the hippocampus, the very structure responsible for memory and learning. Studies have shown that hippocampal neurogenesis, i.e., the creation of new brain cells – is best facilitated through aerobic training. In fact, in comparing the impact of aerobic training vs. weight training vs. HIIT on neuronal development, researchers at the University of Jyvasklyla in Finland found that aerobic exercise surpasses HIIT and lifting. 

The message is clear. If Alzheimer’s is a concern for you, don’t stop lifting, but consider lacing up those running shoes a couple times a week to keep your brain as fit as your body.