Health care professionals routinely encourage us to get out there and exercise. The benefits of an active lifestyle are legion - reduced weight, an efficient heart, healthy lungs and a general sense of well-being. New research is now suggesting that exercise during middle age may help stave off dementia, and may even be an important preventative measure against Alzheimer's.
Dementia and Alzheimer's are two diseases typically associated with old age. As populations in western countries experience longer life spans, problems associated with cognitive abilities in old age appear to be on the increase. There are many types of dementia, and the causes are not always properly identified. Alzheimer's is the most common form, and it is characterized as a progressive brain disorder that destroys a person's memory, causes irritability and expression, and severely inhibits quality of life. Dementia is harrowing not only on the patient, but on their loved ones as well.
Although there is no cure, consensus has always suggested that there are a host of preventative measures to stop or slow the onset of dementia. A recent study by the Karolinska Institute (based in Stokholm, Sweden), published in the online edition of Lancet Neurology, states that exercise may be the most important of those measures. The large-scale study looked at dementia and Alzheimer's in 1500 patients over the age of 65. Each research subject had their exercise habits monitored for the last 35 years, so their lifestyle histories were well documented. The researchers were as surprised by their results as the rest of the medical community.
The study noted that those in middle age who exercised at least twice a week were 50 per cent less likely to develop dementia, and 60 per cent less likely to develop Alzheimer's than those who did not exercise. These numbers show an astonishing distinction between physically active and sedentary individuals when it comes to brain health. And although more studies need to be conducted before this evidence becomes conclusive, there does seem to be a serious correlation between exercise and long-term brain health.
Other studies have proven the link between exercise and increased intellectual capacity, and the mounting evidence suggests that an active lifestyle may be the only way to properly enjoy the latter years of our lives. So what are we to do? The evidence suggests that as little as 30 minutes of activity, three times a week may be enough to stave off a host of health issues, not least of which is dementia and Alzheimer's. As busy as our lives may be, we need to ensure that physical activity becomes an intrinsic part of our weekly routines.
Several studies have linked heart health with vascular dementia - and diabetes and stroke are also factors causing cognitive difficulties. Again, these can often be prevented by lifestyle choices - healthy food, not smoking, moderate alcohol consumption and, of course, exercise.
There's no avoiding it - exercise benefits every muscle in the body, including the one between our ears.
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