Dementia is a syndrome (a group of related symptoms) associated with an ongoing decline of brain functioning and tends to develop as people get older, although is not a natural part of ageing. Early warning signs of the condition include memory loss and an impaired judgement, but as the symptoms progress, symptoms can become more pronounced, and people tend to feel isolated from those around them. Although getting older is the biggest risk factor for dementia, evidence shows that lifestyle decisions can influence a person’s risk of developing the condition too.
According to the Alzheimer’s Society, doing regular physical activity is one of the best ways to reduce your risk of dementia, and numerous studies have backed up this claim.
A new study published in The Lancet Public Health builds on the existing literature by exploring how fitness levels over time influence dementia risk.
“It is important to say that it is never too late to begin exercising. The average participant in our study was around 60 years old at baseline, and improvement in cardiorespiratory fitness was strongly linked to lower dementia risk. Those who had poor fitness in the 1980s but improved it within the next decade could expect to live two years longer without dementia,” says lead author Atefe Tari of the Cardiac Exercise Research Group (CERG) at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU).
To arrive at this verdict, Tari and her research colleagues measured the fitness level of participants twice ten years apart. This approach enabled the researchers to evaluate how changes in fitness over time are related to dementia risk.
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Study: If you increase your cardiorespiratory fitness from poor to good you almost halve the risk
Commenting on their findings, Tari said: “If you increase your cardiorespiratory fitness from poor to good you almost halve the risk of getting dementia. You also reduce the risk of dying from or with dementia.”
Tari added: In our study, each increase of 1MET was associated with a 16 percent lower risk of getting dementia and a 10 percent lower risk of dementia-related death. This is an improvement that is very achievable for most people.”
The metabolic equivalent (MET) is a unit that estimates the amount of energy used by the body during physical activity, as compared to resting metabolism.
Best exercise to reduce the risk
The latest study adds to the existing body of research linking fitness levels to a reduced risk of dementia, and previous studies have also shed a light on the best exercise to reduce the risk of delay brain decline.
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According to a report conducted by the Mayo Clinic, any exercise that gets the heart pumping may reduce the risk of dementia and slow the condition’s progression once it starts.
Researchers examined the role of aerobic exercise in preserving cognitive abilities and concluded that it should not be overlooked as an important therapy against dementia.
The researchers broadly defined exercise as enough aerobic physical activity to raise the heart rate and increase the body’s need for oxygen.
For many people, walking is a great choice for aerobic exercise but other examples include swimming, bicycling and jogging.
Dementia: Eating a healthy, balanced diet can also reduce the risk of dementia
“We culled through all the scientific literature we could find on the subject of exercise and cognition, including animal studies and observational studies, reviewing over 1,600 papers, with 130 bearing directly on this issue. We attempted to put together a balanced view of the subject,” said J. Eric Ahlskog, M.D., Ph.D., a neurologist at Mayo Clinic.
He added: “We concluded that you can make a very compelling argument for exercise as a disease-modifying strategy to prevent dementia and mild cognitive impairment, and for favourably modifying these processes once they have developed.”
The researchers note that brain imaging studies have consistently revealed objective evidence of favourable effects of exercise on human brain integrity.
Also, they note, animal research has shown that exercise generates trophic factors that improve brain functioning, plus exercise facilitates brain connections.
To reap the optimal health benefits, the NHS recommends doing at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity a week or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity if you are already active, or a combination of both.
According to Alzheimer’s Society, a healthy, balanced diet may also reduce your risk of dementia, as well as other conditions including cancer, type 2 diabetes, obesity, stroke and heart disease.
According to the health body, a healthy, balanced diet should consist of:
- At least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day.
- Eating protein (such as oily fish, beans, pulses, eggs or meat) at least twice a week.
- Limiting your sugar intake, and looking out for hidden salt.
- Eating starchy foods like bread, potatoes and pasta.
- Eating less saturated fat and look at the Eatwell Guide from the NHS.
- Drinking six to eight glasses of fluid (such as water, lower fat milk and sugar-free drinks) a day.
It also important to avoid or cut down on certain items to reduce the risk of dementia, such as alcohol consumption, warns the charity.
“At most, you should aim to drink no more than 14 units each week. If you regularly drink much more than this, you’re at risk of alcohol-related brain damage,” it said.