Oct 8, 2009

Worried About Alzheimer's Disease? Tip #1 Exercise

Previously, I wrote -- Worried About Alzheimer's? You Should Be More than 150 million American's are touched by Alzheimer's. More than 75 million are worried about Alzheimer's. They should be.

Worried About Alzheimer's Disease? | Alzheimer's Reading Room
I mentioned in that article that two of my mother's 3 best friends suffer from Alzheimer's disease. All over 80 that makes 3 out of 6, or 50 percent.

Laura Bramly left an interesting comment under that article:
Bob: I'm glad you are doing this series. 
To back up your statistics, out of my group of six college girlfriends (we are all now in our 40s), 3 of us have a mother with Alzheimer's or who died of Alzheimer's/vascular dementia. 
And of these women, only one was in her 80s. People should be worried. I'm looking forward to the rest of the series!
Thanks, Laura.

Is Alzheimer's everywhere? You bet.

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I made one of my best decisions ever when I decided to introduce exercise into my mother's life after she was diagnosed with dementia -- now Alzheimer's.  Imagine taking an 88 year old woman into a gym for the first time in her life. If it was the early 1970s, I would be saying, "far out". That describes how I felt.

Let's skip up the present. Mom is now 93 and we are still going to the gym.

Before we go to the gym mom is usually a bit disoriented, with a dull, almost lifeless look on here face. When we get to the gym she doesn't want to go in. She usually says any combination of these words: I am going to vomit, I am going to faint, I can't do it, and a few choice words that I would rather not repeat.

If you saw us and didn't know anything about Alzheimer's and dementia you might be a bit disconcerted when you see us coming into the gym.

Soon a remarkable tranformation takes place. We do the treadmill first. Mom hates this. But as time goes on she starts standing up straighter, and starts showing some signs of life.

When the treadmill is done, after she walks 22 minutes (takes about 28 minutes with the multiple stops), we then move on to the weight machines.

Figure this one out, mom loves the weight machines. Shoulders, legs, chest, and occasional core exercises. Mom exercises in the gym about 3-5 times a week. More at home.

Alright already, get to the point.

Here is my point. It is clear to me that the exercise increases the blood flow to her brain, and that it changes her social skills positively. There are lots of benefits including this factoid--she sleeps through the night.

Now if exercise can have this kind of dramatic effect on my mother who already suffers from Alzheimer's, you really need to start wondering to yourself -- is this the way to beat or delay the onset of Alzheimer's disease?

There are at least 18 research studies showing that exercise can improve memory in people suffering from Alzheimer's disease.
What is the single most important thing people can do to protect their brains and guard their memory?

The answer is simple and surprising. It's physical exercise, especially the kind that raises your heart rate and makes you sweat. It's not known exactly why exercise works, but the best idea is that it improves blood flow to the brain. It also stimulates the secretion of neurotrophins, which are signaling molecules that help neurons grow.

A recent meta-analysis of 18 studies reports that a physical exercise program -- even one started when people are in their 70s -- can significantly boost executive function. -- Sam Wang, Ph.D, Johns Hopkins Memory Bulletin
There are a long list of studies indicating that physical activity and exercise are an important part of any anti-Alzheimer's strategy.

Exercise has been shown to reduce many of the the high risk factors for dementia including: blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, depression, and the dreaded big belly.

A study conducted by Nicola Lautenschlager and colleagues at the University of Western Australia found that older people suffering from mild cognitive impairment improved their cognitive ability and maintained the improvement over a control group that did less exercise.

In the first study of its kind, Robyn Honea, Ph.D., of the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City found a "relationship between fitness and the hippocampus in Alzheimer's patients".
"We found that, in early-stage Alzheimer’s, cardiorespiratory fitness is correlated with regional brain volumes in key areas affected by the disease," said Honea. "This suggests that maintaining cardiorespiratory fitness may positively modify Alzheimer’s-related brain atrophy."
In other words, you could infer that exercise can help fight off atrophy in the brain region that is most closely associated with Alzheimer's--the hippocampus.

In another observational study,
Investigators looked at the relationship of physical activity and mental function in about 6,000 women age 65 and older, over an 8 year period. They found that the women who were more physically active were less likely to experience a decline in their mental function than inactive women.
In a study conducted at the University of Chicago researches found:
Mice that exercised had 50 to 80 percent less plaque in their brains than the brains of the sedentary mice. Importantly, exercising mice produced significantly more of an enzyme in the brain that prevents plaque.
In my opinion and based on my experience I believe that regular physical exercise is probably the best means we have of preventing Alzheimer's disease.

But lets look at it this way.

This is what we know,
  • High cholesterol in your 40s increases the odds of contracting Alzheimer's--by 50 percent.
  • High blood pressure (hypertension) causes build-up of beta-amyloid in the brain. Beta-amyloid is a central component of the senile plaque in the brains of Alzheimer's patients, and its toxicity against brain cells is believed to be a prime cause of Alzheimer's.
  • This fact is not well known but if you have a big belly in middle age the chances that you could suffer from dementia are tripled. My old buddies on Wall Street might end up wishing they knew this.
If you are worried about Alzheimer's you need to be doing the things and engaging in behaviors that produce the best chance of fighting off the disease. Number one on the list is real, serious exercise.

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