New Research Finds A Big Link Between Physical Exercise & Alzheimer's

mbg Sustainability Editor By Emma Loewe
mbg Sustainability Editor
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability Editor at mindbodygreen and the author of "The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care."

Image by Trinette Reed / Stocksy

Approximately 5.8 million Americans are living with Alzheimer's today, and though the root cause of the disease is largely unknown, we suspect that genetics and lifestyle both play a roleA new study out of Massachusetts General Hospital provides some fresh clues on how we can protect ourselves from this aggressive form of dementia.

By studying the routines of 182 older adults in a clinical setting, the researchers found that those who kept up with physical activity were less likely to experience cognitive decline. This isn't altogether surprising, considering the World Health Organization already recommends regular exercise as a preventive measure against Alzheimer's. What is new information, though, is the amount of exercise that proved beneficial (8,900 steps a day seemed to be enough to do the trick) and the exact way that this movement affected the brain.

The study's authors found that physical activity reduced the amount of b-amyloid (Ab), a protein fragment that seems to accumulate in the brain during the early stages of Alzheimer's, before physical symptoms present themselves. This is the first study to find that exercise might have a beneficial impact during this early, "pre-clinical" stage of Alzheimer's. It's good news because it shows that doctors may one day be able to put holistic treatment plans in place at the first sign of disease. 

Jasmeer Chhatwal, M.D., Ph.D., a corresponding author of the study, cites this as yet another reason everyone—regardless of age or predisposition to Alzheimer's—should make exercise a priority.

"One of the most striking findings from our study was that greater physical activity not only appeared to have positive effects on slowing cognitive decline, but also on slowing the rate of brain tissue loss over time in normal people who had high levels of amyloid plaque in the brain," he writes.

The team at Massachusetts General Hospital is now busy zeroing in on the exact type and duration of exercise that's most beneficial in reducing b-amyloid in the brain. Previous research has found that strong legs in particular contribute to a more robust hippocampus, the part of the brain that processes memories, so it'll be interesting to see if their findings come out in favor of leg day too.

In the meantime, we can all practice other brain-healthy practices like getting quality sleep and eating a diet rich in dark, leafy greens, whole grains, and plenty of fermented foods.

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