Exercise Can Save Your Brain!

January 23rd, 2012

Alzheimer’s disease makes just about everyone’s short list of aging fears. The disorder robs individuals of their memories…their sense of self…their connection to friends and family. It’s hard on everyone who has to watch their loved one disappear before their eyes.

Now, scientific research published in The Archives of Neurology offers a small—but statistically significant—ray of hope for anyone hoping to prevent Alzheimer’s disease. The answer:  Walking!

The scientists studied 201 healthy adults (ages 45 to 88). The participants were tested for genetic predisposition to Alzheimer’s disease, and were given a brain scan to look for signs of amyloid plaques, the abnormal protein deposits that are a characteristic of the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. Fifty-six participants tested positive for the APOE-e4 gene, a marker that increases the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by a factor of 15. None of the participants had signs of Alzheimer’s disease at the beginning of the study. Finally, everyone completed detailed questionnaires about their exercise habits.

According to an article in The New York Times:

The volunteers who reported walking or jogging often — meeting (or, in rare instances, exceeding) the American Heart Association’s exercise recommendation of 30 minutes of moderate or vigorous activity five times a week — had fewer amyloid plaques than the volunteers who reported almost never exercising….

The carriers of the gene who reported walking or jogging for at least 30 minutes five times a week had plaque accumulation similar to that of volunteers who were e4-negative. In essence, the APOE-e4 gene carriers mitigated their inherited risk for developing Alzheimer’s by working out.

So moderate exercise was protective against Alzheimer’s disease…even for people who have an extremely high genetic risk of developing the disease. The scientists have a lot more work to do to figure out why exercise is protective, but for the average person, the take-home lesson is that exercise should become a part of daily health habits for everyone—but especially for those with a family history of Alzheimer’s disease.

“There are so many benefits to exercise,” [Denise Head, an associate professor of psychology at Washington University who led the study] says, “and one may be that it helps the brain” to defend itself against the slow leaking away of memory.

Now that’s science we can get behind!