While not defined as a particular disease, dementia is categorized into groups of conditions like memory loss and judgment impairment—and cases can range in severity. Symptoms of dementia can include forgetfulness, limited social skills, and a loss of thinking abilities entirely. The impact can be overwhelming for both the patient and the surrounding family and friends. “Globally, the effects of memory-damaging diseases, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s, are devastating. In fact, some researchers estimate that more than 100 million people worldwide will be diagnosed with dementia by the year 2050,” says Vernon Williams, M.D., a sports neurologist and founding director of the Center for Sports Neurology. While this statistic sounds overwhelming, Dr. Williams believes that there is hope—and it may involve physical fitness. “Exercise can change the brain for the better and, by doing so, it can help to protect thinking skills and memory in anyone,” he says.
Exercise can help reduce shrinking of the hippocampus, which may allow your memory to stay intact longer.
Many health professionals agree that exercise has many advantages for brain health. It can actually delay, reverse, or resolve the arrival of dementia. Read on as we break down all the brain-health benefits that come with regular exercise.
Keeping Brain Cells Healthy
Just like any part of our body, cells are the foundation and root building block of our major functioning organs, like the brain. By implementing workouts into our routine, not only are our muscles repairing and growing but so are our cells. According to Dr. Williams, “Regular exercise is associated with the increased production of growth factors, chemicals that affect the health of existing brain cells and the survival of new ones, and an actual increase in volume in the selected brain regions that control thinking and memory. Indirectly, exercise positively affects cognitive function by knocking out some of the biggest factors contributing to cognitive impairment: stress, depression, and lack of sleep.”
Maintaining a Healthy Hippocampus
“One of the brain’s structures, the hippocampus, is essential for storing our memory,” says Erica Mouch RDN, CD, LD, and Arivale coach. “Exercise can help reduce shrinking of the hippocampus and, in some cases, is shown to actually enlarge the hippocampus … which may allow your memory to stay intact longer!”
Adding Necessary Proteins to Your Brain
Whether it’s from the food we eat or the amino acid supplements we ingest, everybody needs essential proteins. Although there are more proteins in the body than we may think, we can actually create some proteins on our own (without consuming them). These proteins, when maintained and created, can restore our body’s natural health. According to Mouch, “exercise increases a protein called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor or BDNF. Neurons, our brain’s primary nerve cells, are crucial for thought, and transmit messages throughout our nervous system. BDNF can help enhance these nerve cells and may allow them to create new connections with more ease. Higher levels of BDNF often mean that the brain will decline at a slower rate, which may help prevent dementia.”
Increases Blood Flow to the Brain
There are many benefits of exercise, and it has been proven to reduce the risk and/or severity of dementia. One additional way that working out can boost brain health is by increasing the body’s blood flow to the brain. According to Dr. Richard Honaker, M.D., by “increasing brain blood flow, (working out) causes the optimum balance of brain neurotransmitter chemicals and reduces total body inflammation, which has shown to be a factor in many, many diseases.”
Repair the Body’s Blood Vessels
Keeping our blood vessels, especially in our brain, healthy is vital in preventing the onset of any inflammation or disease, such as dementia. To maintain healthy blood vessels and even repair them, many bodily factors need to be existent and running smoothly. “Exercise also causes the release of these other factors, such as Insulin Growth Factor 1 (IGF1), Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor (VEGF), and Fibroblasts Growth Factor (FGF),” says Board Certified Neurologist and epileptologist Philippe Douyon, M.D. He believes that all of these independent systems fuel learning by building and repairing damaged blood vessels in our brain.
Dementia—in all its forms—is an incredibly complex and individual condition. Leading a physically active life has shown promise in helping to maintain some of the major functions that contribute to a healthy brain. If you think you are at risk of developing dementia or a dementia-related brain condition, talk to your doctor. He or she will be be able to help you choose the best course of action for you.