One new case of dementia is diagnosed every four seconds. It is estimated that more than 115 million people worldwide will suffer from the condition by the year 2050. Dementia may appear to be one of those inevitable conditions we can do nothing to prevent or delay. But researchers are finding that there is a way to help keep your brain robust and sharp while improving your overall health — physical exercise.
We’re all familiar with the benefits of exercise: It reduces depression and improves your mood, helps control your weight, improves your heart health, increases energy levels, and helps you sleep better.
But research reported by several groups JAMA Internal Medicine has shown that regular exercise is also good for your brain health and mental function, including memory. In fact, many experts agree that people who do not exercise are twice as likely to lose cognitive function and develop diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
“Whether you show no signs of decreased intellectual functioning or you are starting to notice subtle signs of mental decline, such as decreased short-term memory, your cognitive function will benefit from regular exercise,” says William Craig, MD, geriatrician with Renown Medical Group.
The National Institute on Aging asserts that physical activity can help delay the onset of dementia associated with age and disease. Exercising for brain health, however, can benefit anyone at any age. Physical exercise fine-tunes your brain as it tones and strengthens your body in several ways.
Exercise Makes Your Brain Healthy
Exercise reduces insulin resistance and inflammation while stimulating the release of growth factors. These chemicals in the brain promote healthy brain cells and the growth of new cells. They also stimulate the growth of new blood vessels that supply the brain with oxygenated blood and glucose. And getting your heart rate up pumps more needed blood to the brain, improving overall brain function.
Exercise Improves Memory and Learning Capacity
Researchers from the University of British Columbia found that consistent vigorous aerobic exercise increases the size of the hippocampus — the area of the brain associated with verbal memory and learning. Even moderate exercise, like walking, has shown to improve memory and the ability to learn and reason. And researchers from UCLA confirm that exercising improves the brain’s ability to develop and support new nerve cells that heighten memory function.
Exercise Protects Your Brain
Generating new nerve cells also strengthens their interconnections and helps protect them from potential damage. Breaking a sweat also promotes the production of nerve-protecting compounds in the brain. Exercise releases hormones that nourish and protect brain cells, while modifying the manner in which damaged cells reside within the brain — which has shown to slow the development of Alzheimer’s.
So what’s the next step? Exercise! The JAMA Internal Medicine reported that the type of exercise is not as important as the amount of activity. “Just start some form of exercise and do it on a regular basis,” Dr. Craig says. He has a few recommendations to get you going and keep you committed.
1. Find a form of exercise you like to do.
2. Exercise with a friend. It will help you stay focused on your exercise goals on those days you just don’t feel motivated.
3. Don’t overdo it. You may need to begin slowly, and that’s OK. Just make the commitment and start.
4. Increase your exercise time and activity level gradually.
5. Find time for both endurance and resistance training.
“I tell my patients to do both aerobic activity, such as walking, and resistance training like light weightlifting,” explains Dr. Craig. These can be done at home, in your neighborhood, at a fitness facility or wherever you are most comfortable.”
If you suspect that you or a loved one may be suffering from memory loss, contact your primary care physician, who can then direct you to an appropriate specialist for evaluation if needed.