Alzheimer’s is a serious disease, clocking in as the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, 5.7 million Americans are currently living with the condition. There is no one surefire thing you can do to eliminate your risk completely. Rather, the disease is influenced by a combination of risk factors, some of which you can control and others you can’t. Genetics, for instance, play a large role. But so do some lifestyle habits — and there is one thing in particular that could drastically reduce your risk.
It’s simple: Exercise. “We don’t know what magic is making this happen, but we do know that regular exercise reduces your risk for developing dementia,” Keith Fargo, Ph.D., director of scientific programs and outreach for the Alzheimer’s Association, told The Daily Meal. And that includes dementia of all kinds — including dementia associated with Alzheimer’s.
“Most people that have dementia have it because they have Alzheimer’s disease brain changes, called plaques and tangles. But a substantial portion of people who have dementia have it for other reasons,” said Fargo. Many of these reasons are related vascular problems, or problems with blood vessels. “For a long time, it was thought that exercise had only to do with the vascular risk of dementia.”
But newer research suggests that Alzheimer’s and exercise are related, as well, even in those who have a genetic form of Alzheimer’s disease.
“Some people have a particular mutation in which they are virtually guaranteed to develop Alzheimer’s,” said Fargo. “There is emerging evidence now that for this group, as well, physical activity has a protective effect. Through maintaining an active lifestyle, this group can delay the onset of the symptoms (at least by one paper I just read) by 15 years.”
So, though science is still unclear on why the correlation is happening, exercise and brain health are more closely related than you might think.
It doesn’t have to be formal exercise like a spin class or hot yoga, either; any form of movement counts. You might use free weights at home, bike around your neighborhood, or go for a walk on a nice day.
“The American Heart Association recommends getting some sort of aerobic exercise for 30 minutes a day, five days a week,” Fargo said. “But anything is better than nothing. If you’re currently sedentary, you can get some benefit from exercising even a little bit.” And it’s never too late to start — whether you’re in your 20s or your 80s, the best time to start making exercise a part of your routine is now.
Of course, exercise isn’t the only health habit you should incorporate to lower your Alzheimer’s risk. Diet plays a large role, as well. And Fargo says that in addition to diet and exercise, the one thing he always recommends is to treat any existing high blood pressure.
“If you have high blood pressure, it is a must that you get that treated,” he advised. “There was a huge clinical trial that showed people who worked to lower their systolic blood pressure to 120 rather than 140 were 20 percent less likely to develop cognitive decline.”
When we’re talking about a disease that affects millions of people, 20 percent is nothing to brush off. If you aren’t sure where to start, here are some diet tips that could help lower your blood pressure.