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Can Physical Activity Prevent Alzheimers Disease?

Studies show that physical activity improves overall cognition.

Key points

  • Physical activity has been shown to improve cognition.
  • Routine physical activity can result in better neurogenesis and less shrinkage of the brain.
  • Evidence suggests that regular physical activity—and especially regular aerobic exercise—could be protective against Alzheimer's disease.

Regular exercise and physical activity exhibit positive effects on cognitive function in the elderly. Aerobic exercise appears to be the most beneficial here as it improves executive functioning. In fact, physical exercise acts as an important neuroprotective modulator with the potential to control Alzheimer’s disease and amplify brain functions significantly.

How Does Physical Activity Affect Alzheimer’s Disease?

While a growing amount of evidence strongly suggests a positive influence of exercise on Alzheimer’s, the underlying mechanisms require further research. It’s highly likely various mechanisms of action can delay the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, not just one. These may include:

  • Improved blood flow to the brain
  • Better sleep quality
  • Improved cardiovascular and metabolic health
  • Prevention and treatment of depression

Considering the fact that a cure for Alzheimer’s disease doesn’t exist, it is crucial to find a way to delay the progression of this neurodegenerative disease. Increased levels of exercise and physical activity could help achieve this goal sustainably and cost-effectively (1).

Photo by Marcus Aurelius from Pexels
Long-term exercise routines provide improved blood flow to the brain and neurogenesis.
Source: Photo by Marcus Aurelius from Pexels

What Does the Research Show?

A study from the March 2020 issue of Frontiers in Neuroscience appeared to confirm the beneficial effect of physical activity on Alzheimer’s disease. You see, Alzheimer’s patients with long-term exercise routines appear to have improved blood flow, better neurogenesis, and increased volume of the hippocampus. Plus, exercise and physical activity have fewer side effects and better adherence compared to medications (2).

Besides delayed progression of Alzheimer’s disease, physical exercise can reduce the risk of developing this condition in the first place. One study found that sedentary behavior increased dementia risk as much as genetic factors. Since most people aren’t at genetic risk of dementia, increasing levels of physical activity could be an effective prevention strategy (3).

Physical Activity Improves Cognitive Abilities

Various factors influence cognitive functioning, and lifestyle is one of them. Studies show aerobic exercise can modulate oscillatory brain activity and influences neural dynamics underlying visual attention (4).

Older adults who participate in physical activity showed less cognitive decline over a two- to 10-year follow-up. What’s more, being more active improves executive function, enhances motor response, increases attention, and improves processing speed and memory. While aerobic training is considered the best for cognitive functioning, other types of exercises are also beneficial. Resistance training also appears to improve memory performance, attention, and conflict resolution (5).

 Photo by Edu Carvalho from Pexels
Staying active can not only prevent and help cognitive decline but leads to a happier and more fulfilling life as we age.
Source: Photo by Edu Carvalho from Pexels

A study that investigated everyday memory in adulthood found that on days elderly subjects engaged in leisure exercise, they experienced fewer memory failures (6). In other words, being active or exercising regularly could have lasting effects on memory in older adults. This is particularly important because older adults tend to experience memory-related difficulties, even if they don’t have Alzheimer’s.

Conclusion

Studies strongly suggest that physical activity and exercise can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s, delay its progression, improve cognitive functions, and increase neuroplasticity.

References

Jia, R. X., Liang, J. H., Xu, Y., & Wang, Y. Q. (2019). Effects of physical activity and exercise on the cognitive function of patients with Alzheimer disease: a meta-analysis. BMC geriatrics, 19(1), 181. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12877-019-1175-2

Fenesi, B., Fang, H., Kovacevic, A., Oremus, M., Raina, P., & Heisz, J. J. (2017). Physical Exercise Moderates the Relationship of Apolipoprotein E (APOE) Genotype and Dementia Risk: A Population-Based Study. Journal of Alzheimer's disease : JAD, 56(1), 297–303. https://doi.org/10.3233/JAD-160424

Meng, Q., Lin, M. S., & Tzeng, I. S. (2020). Relationship Between Exercise and Alzheimer's Disease: A Narrative Literature Review. Frontiers in neuroscience, 14, 131. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2020.00131

Chaire, A., Becke, A., & Düzel, E. (2020). Effects of Physical Exercise on Working Memory and Attention-Related Neural Oscillations. Frontiers in neuroscience, 14, 239. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2020.00239

Bherer, L., Erickson, K. I., & Liu-Ambrose, T. (2013). A review of the effects of physical activity and exercise on cognitive and brain functions in older adults. Journal of aging research, 2013, 657508. https://doi.org/10.1155/2013/657508

Whitbourne, S. B., Neupert, S. D., & Lachman, M. E. (2008). Daily Physical Activity: Relation to Everyday Memory in Adulthood. Journal of applied gerontology : the official journal of the Southern Gerontological Society, 27(3), 331–349. https://doi.org/10.1177/0733464807312175

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