Guest post by Paul Fairbairn, BSc (hons) in Sport and Exercise Science & Nutrition MSc student.
If you walked into any gym across the country right now and asked members why they were there and what their goals were, chances are you would get a huge range of answers. These might include getting bigger and stronger, weight loss, sports performance. You may even encounter some members exercising to help improve their mood. These are all totally acceptable answers, as regular exercise and physical activity has been shown to improve numerous areas of health (Warburton, 2006). One answer you’d be less likely to hear is “I’m exercising for brain health and to prevent dementia”. However there is a growing amount of scientific evidence to support the fact that regular physical activity can help prevent or slow down the progression of dementia.
Dementia is generally considered as the umbrella term for any of the following conditions: Alzheimer’s disease, dementia with Lewy bodies, Parkinson’s disease, vascular dementia, frontotemporal dementia and mixed dementia. An estimate, from the Alzheimer’s society, puts the prevalence of dementia in the UK as 850,000 this is expected to rise to over 1 million by 2020. The reason for this expected increase is that, due to advances in medicine, public health and nutrition, the life expectancy of people in the UK has risen. This ultimately meaning we have an ageing population who are likely to be more susceptible to degenerative diseases, such as dementia. Unfortunately, there is currently no cure for dementia and therefore diet and lifestyle interventions can be extremely important in supporting a person with this condition.
Numerous epidemiological studies (studies that follow a large number of participants over a long period of time, with the aim of establishing trends) have found that higher levels of activity, are related to reductions in dementia. A review of several of these studies found that those who were more physically active were 35% less likely to have cognitive decline and 24% less likely to be diagnosed with dementia (Blondell et al., 2014). Much research points towards the benefits of physical activity for dementia, but also for a number of other health conditions such as depression, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. The case for increasing levels of physical activity, even as we age, is strong, with little relevant argument against doing so.
Now this doesn’t mean gran and granddad need to be going down to the local Crossfit gym. Walking as little as 2 mile per day (around 4000-5000 steps) was shown to decrease dementia incidence compared to those who were sedentary or walked less than 1 mile per day (Abbott et al., 2004). This shows that even small, achievable amounts of activity could be protective against dementia. As we age, it’s easy to understand how levels of physical activity decline and we can become more sedentary, especially as mobility decreases and, often medication increases. However, inactivity itself is a risk factor for a number of other health conditions – resulting in a vicious cycle between inactivity and poor health outcomes.
A number of activities are suitable for older adults, for example cycling and swimming are both fairly low impact for the joints and as we’ve seen earlier, even modest walking can help improve health and get you active.
So next time you’re in the gym, out running or taking part in your chosen sport, take pleasure in knowing that you could also be helping to keep your brain healthy into old age. If you’re currently not active it’s never too late, a long walk every two days or a light jog is all you need to get started. Finally next time you visit your mum, dad or grandparents, try taking them out for a walk in the countryside and get that activity level rising.
Abbott, R., White, L. and Ross, G. (2004). Walking and dementia in physically capable elderly men. ACC Current Journal Review, 13(12), p.14.
Blondell, S., Hammersley-Mather, R. and Veerman, J. (2014). Does physical activity prevent cognitive decline and dementia?: A systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal studies. BMC Public Health, 14(1), p.510.
UK Dementia Report., 2014. Dementia UK: Update. London. The Alzheimer’s Society.
Warburton, D. E.R. ‘Health Benefits Of Physical Activity: The Evidence’. Canadian Medical Association Journal 174.6 (2006): 801-809. Web.
World Health Organisation., 2004. The Global Burden of Disease: 2004 Update. Geneva. World Health Organization.