Research has told us for decades that exercise lowers the risk of heart disease, strengthens bones and muscles, reduces stress, and helps manage weight. However, it offers far more benefits that are not quite as obvious. Studies have shown that exercise can improve cognitive function. This evidence leads researchers to believe that exercise may be beneficial for individuals at risk for developing Alzheimer’s or for those that already have the disease. Brain functions such as memory loss, reasoning, and judgment all decline as the disease progresses. For the longest time many would suggest medication was the best treatment for Alzheimer’s, but now research shows behavior intervention can be used in adjunction to medication to slow down brain aging associated with diseases like Alzheimer’s. Exercise can lead the way in behavior intervention for individuals suffering with Alzheimer’s.
How does exercise benefit the brain?
Research suggests that 30-60 min of daily exercise, several times a week, could delay the start or slow the progress of Alzheimer’s disease. Human studies show that the probability that someone will lose cognitive function in the short term is reduced by exercise. Physical activity seems to help the brain not only by keeping your blood flowing, but also by increasing chemicals that protect the brain. Physical activity also tends to counter some of the natural reduction in brain connections that occurs with aging (Mayo Clinic).
Neuroscientists have known for many years that a normal protein, brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), is released during aerobic exercise and stimulates the growth of new neurons. Recently, Dr. Carl W. Cotman of the University of California performed a study using animal subjects. His findings suggest that exercise may be the most ideal and beneficial behavior change to preserve the brain.
Dr. Cotman’s study consisted of two groups. One group had access to a running wheel at night and the other group that was forced to be sedentary with no access to a wheel. Animal subjects that exercised in the running wheel at night had better problem solving and reasoning skills when put in a Morris Water Maze. Subjects that had been exercising were consistently able to locate the platform, just underneath the surface of the water, significantly faster than sedentary subjects. The studies showed that exercised subjects were able to learn faster and better than sedentary subjects. Cotman stated, “BDNF was increased in the part of the brain that controls thinking and learning. The same part of the brain that is vulnerable to Alzheimer’s disease. The brain showed a self preservation mechanism that also made it smarter” (Alzheimer’s Project).
Based on these animal model studies, Cotman stated in his conclusion, “Exercise increases the BDNF and acts as a nutrient or “fertilizer” for neurons. Exercise can induce growth factors, help build neurons, synapses, and improve learning” (Alzheimer’s Project). These findings show that a simple behavior change such as exercise can help delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and improve cognitive function.
“The Alzheimer’s Project”, a presentation of HBO Documentary Films & the National Institute on Aging at the National Institute of Health in association with Alzheimer’s Association
To learn more about Alzheimer’s Disease, Join Mental Health Therapist, Angel Duncan from the Neuropsychiatric Research Center of Southwest Florida for “Understanding Alzheimer’s: Facts, Figures, and Future Outlook” on Monday, February 6th at 11:15am. This is a complimentary lecture, but we ask that you call the Fitness Center at 495-1937 or stop by the Fitness Center to register as space is limited.