Exercise and Alzheimer’s Disease
Author: Branden Sattler
From: East Meadow, NY, USA
It has to be one of the saddest obstacles to witness. The deteriorating memory, the dwindling personal interaction, and the loss of someone’s distinct personality. Watching a relative develop Alzheimer’s is like watching them die before they have actually died. Life during that time feels hopeless, like there is no way out of this plight. But what if there was a way to lessen this pain? What if there was a way to somehow restore at least a little bit of your loved one’s cognitive ability and personality, so you can enjoy interacting with that person one last time. Well, there is a possible solution: exercise.
What is Alzheimer’s Disease?
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common psychological disease that an aging person experiences. It is also the most common cause of dementia: memory loss or cognitive damage that inhibits a person’s daily life. In fact, Alzheimer’s disease accounts for about 60%-80% of dementia cases. Due to the increasing life expectancy of the United States, the number of Alzheimer’s and dementia cases is only going to increase. If there is no cure found, it is estimated that by 2040, there will be about 14 million cases in the United States.
Preventing and Delaying Alzheimer's Disease
What if there was a way to delay the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease? What if there was a way to enjoy your loved one in a normal state of mind for a few more years. Having your elderly relative stay physically active before Alzheimer’s has developed will allow this to happen. This is because exercise benefits the body in three ways: increased blood flow, better memory/hippocampus, and an increase in neurons generated from neural stem cells (neurogenesis). When there is an increase in blood flow to your brain, there is more metabolic activity in all parts of your brain, which decreases the chances of your brain deteriorating early and will improve cognitive ability in every aspect. One of the areas that will receive more blood flow is the hippocampus. Since the hippocampus deals directly with memory, exercise improves the memory of people before they have Alzheimer’s disease, which makes them less likely to face one really common symptom: memory lost. Finally, the most important aspect of cognitive health that exercise improves is neurogenesis. Improving neurogenesis allows the brain to increase its plasticity- the brain’s ability to repair itself. Thus, even though exercise is not a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, it will certainly help to lessen the symptoms and delay the disease.
Improved Cognitive Ability
Exercising also improves the mental capacity of Alzheimer's patients. In a study where people with Alzheimer’s disease participated in a 5-month aerobic exercise program, it has been found that these patients experienced an enhanced rate of learning. This is due to the delay of β-amyloid: a protein that is one of the main causes of Alzheimer’s disease and is almost always found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. Also, exercising allows for the mediation of neurotrophic factors, bio-molecules that support the growth and development of mature neurons, which improves the overall cognitive ability of the patient. Finally, aerobic exercise stimulates nerve growth in the hippocampal region of the brain, which is the part of the brain that has to do with memory. After hearing about these benefits, you may be wondering how they apply to the everyday lives of Alzheimer’s patients. This improved cognitive ability will help Alzheimer’s patients to carry out simple activities such as bathing and using the bathroom. Also, it will help the Alzheimer's patients carry out more complex activities easier such as housekeeping and meal preparation. Although the patients’ cognitive ability is not going back to normal, life with your loved one with Alzheimer’s will certainly be easier because they will be a little sharper and more self-sufficient. This will make life feel more normal again.
With the new abilities that Alzheimer’s patients learned through exercise, life will hopefully become closer to normal. Next time you see your relative with Alzheimer's disease, ask them to participate in a short non-strenuous exercise program. You may see incredible results.
Author: Branden Sattler
Branden is a rising junior at East Meadow High School. He has a passion for psychology and wants to understand how different aspects of life affect a person’s emotional well-being.
What is Alzheimer's? (n.d.). Retrieved September 20, 2020, from https://www.alz.org/alzheimers-dementia/what-is-alzheimers
Lucia, A., & Ruiz, J. R. (2009). Exercise is beneficial for patients with Alzheimer’s disease: a call for action. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 45(6), 468–469. https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsm.2009.061200
Santana-Sosa, E., Barriopedro, M., López-Mojares, L., Pérez, M., & Lucia, A. (2008). Exercise Training is Beneficial for Alzheimer’s Patients. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 29(10), 845–850. https://doi.org/10.1055/s-2008-1038432