The thought of developing Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia can be scary, especially if we’ve witnessed the affects on our loved ones. But instead of crossing our fingers for a pharmaceutical solution or simply hoping the disease skips us entirely, we may have more control than we think. More studies are showing that exercise may be a great way to keep your mind sharp and stave off Alzheimer’s. Let’s review what science is saying and discuss the best exercises to help prevent Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Our brain is composed of four major regions. Inside the temporal lobe (located behind our ears near the base of our skull) is the hippocampus. Its function, among other jobs, is to store our short-term and long-term memories. So any time you’re able to drive to your favorite grocery store or conjure the perfect Scrabble word, that’s all due to the hippocampus.
When Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn was only thirty-two years old, she made a historic discovery that awarded her the Nobel Prize for Physiology in Medicine. She found that we have telomeres in every cell of our bodies. They act as protective end caps on our chromosomes — think of those little plastic tubes which keep our shoelaces neat and intact. Telomeres in our hippocampus are involved with memory, and folks with dementia and Alzheimer’s have shorter telomeres than those free of these diseases. Research finds the longer and stronger our telomeres remain, the more efficiently our brains function, the sharper our memory stays, and the less our body will decline and age.
Studies also indicate that estrogen may regulate the number and length of our telomeres. In our reproductive years, our bodies have enough estrogen to keep a woman’s telomeres long, strong, and growing. The trouble begins when we reach post-menopause, and we lose our protective armor of hormones through the dramatic drop in our estrogen production.
The “fuzzy thinking” many women experience during and post-menopause, and the cognitive decline accompanying it, comes in large part from the shortening of our telomeres. Once our ovaries stop making estrogen, it’s up to our adrenal glands and fat cells to produce it. Unfortunately, they usually focus on making cortisol to help keep up with our warp-speed lives. As a result, our telomeres don’t stand a chance of getting estrogen.
It may seem like the odds are stacked against us, but there is good news. As Dr. Blackburn and Dr. Elissa Epel discuss in The Telomere Effect, A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer, exercise can keep our telomeres strong. They also dive into the best exercises to help prevent Alzheimer’s and dementia, keep our hippocampus growing and our telomeres lengthening. There seems to exist a love connection between habitual physical exercise and increased telomere length in postmenopausal women. Even better, women may actually be the greater beneficiaries of exercise in mid-life and beyond. More research is needed as the science points that way.
After observing 6,500 participants for over three years, Dr. Blackburn and Dr. Epel noticed improvement in telomere length of those doing one type of aerobic exercise. An even greater result involved two different types of heart-pumping work. And the greatest change was noted in folks who really mixed it up and dropped four different types of exercise into their weekly workout plan.
Aerobic exercise is the answer, so opt for vigorous aerobic exercise at 60 percent maximum capacity. You should be breathing hard but still able to hold a conversation. Your personal capacity will vary on your fitness level, but you’ll notice an increased endurance over time. Schedule forty-five minute workouts at least four times per week to keep your body (and your telomeres) healthy.
Dr. Blackburn and Dr. Eppel also report found that High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) can also work wonders for our telomere lengths. While aerobics can keep telomeres strong and growing, HIIT actually works to stimulate the birth of brand new hippocampus cells. Revving up our workout intensity forces our hippocampus to adapt and grow to accommodate the onslaught of energy. Our memory improves, our cognitive functions improve, and our lives improve.
As older adults, we must gradually build up our capability, even if we have been exercising regularly. HIIT training is not something to just jump into, so consult with a physician and fitness professional before jumping in. A fitness professional can help you put together a sensible plan, but make sure you speak with someone who is trained to work with your age range.
If the thought of enrolling in a fitness class sounds daunting, keep in mind that household activities count too! Any activity will count, as long as your heart rate stays up in your 60 percent range for 45 minutes. To make sure you’re hitting your numbers, buy a heart rate monitor and wear it while you vigorously vacuum, rake leaves, or clean. And wear it when you are at the gym!
Exercise has emerged in the last few years as so much more important that we previously thought. The smart folks are saying that every neurologist should be prescribing exercise to their patients before they write a script for anything else. We are animals that were born to move — use it or lose it, the saying goes, and that’s proving truer every day.
Speaking of workouts, you’ve probably heard about more women opting for heavy weight lifting. See why it even more beneficial for women over 50.