We have all heard of it. We may even know someone who has it, but what exactly is dementia, why does it occur, how can we stave it off, and who will ultimately be paying for it?
The Alzheimer’s Association defines dementia as a general term for a decline in mental ability severe enough to interfere with daily life. Alzheimer’s disease is a subset of dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking, and behavior, with symptoms usually developing slowly and worsening over time. Patients usually begin to experience slight memory loss, which progresses to difficulty remembering new information and eventually to losing the ability to communicate thoroughly with others. Currently, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s; however, there are a few treatments that can temporarily slow its progression, giving patients an improved quality of life. But how does a disease like this begin?
The start of Alzheimer’s and dementia begins in the brain many years before any noticeable cognitive differences can be observed. It is theorized that certain proteins build up to create a type of plaque that interferes with nearby nerve cells. This plaque causes another protein, tau, to twist and bend, cutting off nutrients to brain cells. The brain, just like the rest of the body, needs a rich supply of healthy blood and oxygen to function most efficiently, and when starved, brain cells slowly begin to die off. Alongside the formation of these proteins, the hippocampus—the memory center—begins to shrink. This happens as we age, but it is more drastic in those suffering from the cascading effects of Alzheimer’s.
In a perfect world, a treatment would be created that could reduce the amount of tau protein as well as increase the size of the hippocampus. Well, lucky for us, there is. It’s called EXERCISE. An article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America took 120 older adults and split them into two groups: an aerobic exercise group (moderate-intensity 3x/wk) and a stretching control group. The study found that the aerobic exercise training helped increase the size of the hippocampus by a volume of 2%, reversing the amount of loss due to aging by 1 to 2 years.
It was also noted that higher pre-intervention fitness helped slow the decline of the control group, suggesting that preexisting fitness can play a major factor in maintaining a healthy brain. Another study published in The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association discovered that regular aerobic exercise was able to reduce the twisted tau proteins in adults with cognitive impairment. Both of these findings suggest that consistent aerobic exercise can be used as an initial combatant against these neurological diseases.
With health care costs continually on the rise, where do dementia and Alzheimer’s fit in? In 2015, the total cost of all payers for the care of those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and dementia was an estimated $225 billion. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, without treatment, the projected cost would rise above a trillion dollars by 2050; however, there is hope. A 2015 report, Changing the Trajectory of Alzheimer’s Disease: How a Treatment by 2025 Saves Lives and Dollars, determined that if a treatment were developed by 2025 that could delay the onset of Alzheimer’s by just five years, America would save roughly $220 billion over the first five years and $365 billion in 2050 alone.
Protecting ourselves from dementia will not only improve our lives but the lives of those around us. By taking the necessary steps to educate ourselves and others about Alzheimer’s, its rapid increase, current prevention strategies, and where it is heading, we can better protect our brains and bodies.
At Rinaldi Performance and GYROTONIC® Coconut Grove Health & Fitness Studio;
we specialize in providing our clients with exercise and fitness programs that suit their individual needs. Having multiple members of our family suffer from Alzheimer’s and dementia, we are particularly sensitive to this issue. We are determined to make a difference in our community by offering healthy exercise options to help combat these diseases. Whether you are looking for aerobic training, strength building, or flexibility and mobility exercise, we can help you reach your goals and improve your quality of life at any age.
Exercise Physiologist for Baptist Health
Head Strength & Conditioning Coach