Exercise and the Brain

The healthiest brains are attached to bodies that move; regular, strong, and vigorous exercise strengthens circulation for body and mind. Exercise makes the brain more adaptable and higher functioning. One of the saddest and greatest tragedies we have witnessed in our country is the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. The loss of one’s mind is cruel to the affected person, and their loved ones and caregivers are deeply affected as well. Treatment for AD and dementia is very challenging and costly. The latest statistics from the American Alzheimer’s Association show that in 2013, an estimated 5.2 million Americans of all ages had AD. One in nine people age sixty- five and older have AD, and 32 percent of people age eighty-five and older have AD.

The hallmarks of a diseased brain are its rigid pathways and appearance—when the brain becomes hardened by lack of blood flow, increased inflammation, and lack of stimulation. In Alzheimer’s disease, the brain will usually have a large quantity of amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles (these are types of protein fragments that cannot be dissolved). There is also a loss of connection between nerve cells. But exercise may help to help bridge those connections, possibly by rerouting neurons or creating new connections.

In cultures around the world that exhibit the greatest longevity, it is rare to see dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Why? What is it that we are doing here in the United States that drives this disease and makes it so commonplace? Inflammation and our Western way of eating and not moving are primary risk factors. Higher levels of physical activity are linked to a reduced risk of AD. Prevention is our best opportunity to fight this growing trend.

Several studies affirm the ability of exercise to protect our brains. People with the highest level of activity were less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease compared to people who are inactive. Exercisers are up to 50 percent less likely to develop any form of dementia or mental impairment compared to sedentary folks. There is a robust association between physical activity and a reduction in memory impairment.

The more we Move, the better we Think. Think of exercise as a direct lifeline to mental fitness, along with cognitive and emotional resilience.