Caring Currents

Exercise and Dementia Prevention

Last updated:

January 02, 2009
Running to stand still
Image by Herkie used under the creative commons attribution share alike license.

I tend to share ideas for coping with [Alzheimer's and other dementias]( more than talk about how to avoid it or cure it. That's partly because recent research into causes and cures has led to more dead-ends than promising highways. Also, by the time you're reading this, you want help with the day-to-day reality, not the what-ifs.

Last week, though, a notable insight into both prevention and cure was announced by researchers at Northwestern University. Scientists have previously identified much of the complicated biochemical process that creates Alzheimer's disease– all those plaques, tau, and tangles in the brain. But what's the trigger? New research, reported in the journal Neuron, points to the brain's slow, chronic lack of sugar glucose, which is normally delivered by adequate blood flow. A study in the December Annals of Neurology also points to blood-sugar regulation as a factor in memory impairment.

This means that improving blood flow to the brain may hold both the prevention and cure keys to some types of dementia. This insight certainly fits in with many of the risk factors we know about Alzheimer's, including cardiovascular disease (which restricts blood flow to the brain) and diabetes (a blood-sugar disorder).

But you don't have to wait for more proof of a bloodflow-dementia link to do three generally beneficial things now:

  • Get more exercise. This theme – the myriad benefits of exercise -- comes often enough in health research that any adult who says she doesn't have time for it may want to try again for a fresh commitment for 2009. It's never too late to start, and even more important to stick to as you approach your 60s and beyond. (Dementia risk rises with age.) Recent research has even shown that after dementia has begun, exercise can slow cognitive decline.
  • Keep your cholesterol low, or lower it. High cholesterol is linked to cardiovascular disease. Heart disease restricts blood flow to the brain.
  • Work to control blood pressure. Same principle as with high cholesterol. Work to keep off the path to heart disease. Exercise helps with this.

Obviously we're not yet at the bottom of the mystery of Alzheimer's. Simply moving your body more may be too simplistic an answer. My mother-in-law, for example, swam several times a week up to age 90, but didn't outswim dementia. Science has yet to untangle the relationship between nature (our genes) and nurture (lifestyle, health habits, the environment).

But this news is enough to make me want to cut out dessert and go for a walk -- even more than I'm normally resolved to do each new year.