As you age, maintaining your cognitive health becomes increasingly important. At this moment, 55 million people around the world are suffering from dementia, a syndrome that affects one’s ability to remember, think clearly, make decisions, and more. The good news? Experts say that experiencing these symptoms as you get older is not a foregone conclusion—there are many ways to reduce your dementia risk. And, even if you’ve reached your senior years, it’s not too late to strengthen your cognitive health. Read on to find out the one thing you can do to slash your risk by at least 30 percent, and the other benefits that come along with it.
Research has long established the benefits of exercise on brain health, but recent studies have confirmed that continuing to exercise late in life can have a significant impact on your dementia and Alzheimer’s risk. In fact, a 2022 study published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association says that “late-life physical activity (PA) is one of the most consistently recommended lifestyle modifications to support brain and cognitive aging.” It also notes that “inactivity alone is estimated to account for over 4 million dementia cases.”
To determine the extent of the impact of exercise on the brain health of older individuals, the team recorded motor data from 404 subjects, and followed up with post-mortem evaluations of the brain. They found that those who exercised more frequently later in life were significantly less likely to have developed Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia by their time of death.
Other research has mirrored these findings. A similarly designed 2019 study published in the journal Neurology observed that those who performed more frequent physical activity scored better on memory and cognition tests. “Every increase in physical activity by one standard deviation was associated with a 31 percent lower risk of dementia,” the Cleveland Clinic reports of the study’s findings.
The researchers behind the 2022 study posited that the brain benefits appear to be linked to higher synaptic protein levels resulting from exercise. They say that these healthier and more plentiful synaptic proteins—which connect neurons in the brain—likely contribute to brain resilience, even for those at higher demographic risk of dementia. “Regardless of pathology presence, cognition cannot occur without integrity of the synaptic unit,” the team explains.
The study concludes that those who wish to lower their risk of dementia may therefore benefit from a sustained exercise regimen in late-life. “Our data are the first to demonstrate a link between a lifestyle behavior, PA, and markers of synaptic integrity in human brain tissue. We suggest PA may help build synaptic health, even at late ages,” the team writes.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, there are several other ways that exercise can benefit brain health, besides preserving the synaptic proteins. The health authority notes that regular exercise can promote blood flow to the brain by improving cardiovascular health, reduce inflammation, lower stress hormones, increase the thickness of the cerebral cortex, and improve the integrity of the brain’s white matter.
The Cleveland Clinic also notes that exercise also promotes neuroplasticity, “your brain’s ability to form new neural connections and adapt throughout life.” Importantly, exercise can help this process occur in the hippocampus, an area of the brain that is essential for memory.
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You may now be wondering how much exercise is enough to cut your dementia risk. The Cleveland Clinic says that by performing mid-intensity aerobic exercise for a minimum of 150 minutes per week, you should be able to improve your physical fitness—as well as your brain health. “We know that physical exercise, and aerobic exercise in particular, is very beneficial for maintaining brain health, even in people who are at risk for developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease,” neuropsychologist Aaron Bonner-Jackson, PhD, told the health authority. “You can make a major difference in terms of how your body is functioning and, as a result, how your brain is functioning,” he adds.
In equally good news, you won’t have to wait long to reap the benefits of your hard work. According to the Alzheimer’s Society, just one month of regular aerobic exercise can improve the performance of healthy adults on cognitive tests. After reviewing the results of 29 clinical trials, the organization established a direct link between this minimum period of sustained exercise and improved memory, attention, and processing speed.
So, when it comes to exercise, it’s never too late to start—just be sure to first speak with your doctor about the safest workout regimen for you. Whether you head to the gym, take up a sport, or work a brisk walk into your daily routine, your brain stands to benefit from exercise at any age.