Exercise and its Effect on Dementia

Written by Donna Sarkar and Chelsea Myer

If you have ever witnessed a loved one gradually losing their memories due to dementia, you know just how heartbreaking and challenging this disease can be to navigate. Dementia is clinically defined as a decline in cognitive function. While there are many distinct stages of mental impairment, someone experiencing dementia must be affected by at least two of the following brain functions: memory, thinking, language, judgment, and behavior.  

According to the World Health Organization, there are currently over 55 million people around the world who have dementia. Because the disease is most prevalent in older adults, as the proportion of elderly people increases, the number of dementia patients is also expected to rise. The estimated number of dementia patients around the globe will reach 78 million in 2030 and 139 million in 2050.

With these devastating statistics, it is natural to scour for treatment methods to fight dementia. While different preventative methods exist, such as medication and eating a healthier diet, research shows that exercise has proven to be one of the best ways to prevent cognitive decline.  

How Moving Our Body Exercises the Mind

So, you might be wondering how moving your physical body can reduce the risk of dementia and even aid dementia patients in minimizing further cognitive decline. The root of the answer is that humans were not made to lead a sedentary lifestyle. Science has shown that the human brain ceases to function at its full potential if we are not constantly moving. For years, humans have evolved in a world that constantly requires them to explore their environments. Because of this, our brains require constant stimulation. Exercise is one way to give our brains the movement it needs.

When our bodies engage in exercise, a protein called BDNF, or brain-derived neurotrophic factor, is released. This protein is extremely beneficial for cognitive function because it is thought to promote the formation of new neurons in our brain’s hippocampus, the main memory center of the brain.  

While engaging in any physical activity is beneficial for your health, experts suggest regular aerobic exercises are key to boosting your cognitive function. A recent study concluded that aerobic exercises may help slow shrinkage in the hippocampus. The study consisted of a small proof-of-concept trial of people ages 55 and older with mild cognitive impairment that were split randomly into two groups. One group performed aerobic exercise for about 30 minutes up to 4 to 5 times weekly. The other group only did flexibility training. Brain imaging displayed that the aerobic exercise group lost slightly less volume in the hippocampus, a brain region that deteriorates as dementia progresses. This led researchers to believe individuals looking for exercises to prevent dementia and protect their memories will benefit from including aerobic exercises that are intense enough to raise their heart rates.

Types of Aerobic Exercises to Engage In  

While lifestyle changes like a healthy diet and managing blood pressure can significantly reduce the risk of dementia, exercise is a key ingredient to keeping your mind in shape. Whether you are looking to help a loved one suffering from dementia or simply want to keep your body and mind healthy, the best option is to engage in aerobic exercise. Aerobic exercise provides cardiovascular conditioning. The term aerobic means "with oxygen," which means that our breathing controls the amount of oxygen that flows to the muscles. Here are some aerobic exercises that you can engage in:

It is recommended that you speak with your provider before you begin an exercise program. Ask what, if any, limitations you may have. People who suffer from diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, arthritis, pulmonary conditions, or other health conditions may need additional safety guidelines for exercise.

If you develop symptoms during exercise including, but not limited to, unusual shortness of breath; tightness in the chest; chest, shoulder, or jaw pain; lightheadedness; dizziness; confusion; or joint pain, you should stop exercising immediately and contact your physician.

If you would like assistance creating or sticking to your exercise regimen, please reach out to an Ivira Wellness Health Coach.

Chelsea Myer
Health Coach


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