According to Alzheimer’s Research UK, there are over 850,000 people with dementia in the UK, with that figure set to rise to 2 million by 2051. Its impact, not just on those diagnosed with dementia, but their carers and families too can be devastating.
The good news is that there are things we can do keep our brains healthier for longer and prevent or delay the onset of dementia symptoms.
Experts believe that the key to preventing Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia could lie in being physically active. Here we look at why that might be and suggest some exercises that could give your brain a workout as well as your body.
Get active to protect against Alzheimer’s and dementia
There is evidence to suggest that exercise could be one of a number of lifestyle factors that may protect against, or delay the development of Alzheimer’s disease by enhancing cognitive function1.
We know that as we age our brain shrinks, leading to impaired memory and increased risk of dementia. So maintaining youthful cognitive function is a crucial element of healthy aging.
A number of studies have found that not only does being physically active help prevent brain shrinkage and delay the onset of dementia symptoms, but aerobic exercise may actually increase brain volume2, resulting in improved memory function, particularly in those already diagnosed with dementia3.
Exercise may actually be of its highest importance during our midlife, as physical activity levels during this time are associated with future cognitive function4.
How exercise helps boost brain health and delay the onset of dementia
Exercise may protect you from developing Alzheimer’s disease in a number of ways.
Increasing blood flow to the brain
Exercise causes an increase in blood flow, particularly to areas such as the brain. So while poor blood flow can impair memory and hasten the symptoms of dementia, by exercising and enhancing blood flow, your brain becomes more exposed to oxygen and essential nutrients that will help protect brain function.
Protein and hormone release
Hormones play an important role in signaling pathways in the brain, and failure of these pathways has been linked with Alzheimer’s disease. Individuals with Alzheimer’s disease have significantly reduced amounts of specific proteins and hormones in the brain but these can actually be produced and released to the brain during physical activity. Exercising to induce these hormones and proteins may therefore boost our brain power and act in preventing Alzheimer’s.
Improving heart health
Cardiovascular disease increases the risk of Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia, as well as heart attacks and strokes, which themselves can lead to impaired cognitive function. Exercising for at least 150 minutes every week is one of the key ways to improve cardiovascular health and protect against all of these conditions and their effect on brain function. Visit our heart centre for more information and tips to help look after your heart.
Helping to maintain your weight and promoting better insulin control
Research suggests that being diabetic can increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s and dementia. Type 2 diabetes is characterised by insulin resistance, the body’s inability to remove glucose from the bloodstream and due to the destructive behaviour of excessive glucose levels on the brain cells, it is also linked to Alzheimer’s. Damage that can be caused to small blood vessels in the brain along with a reduced blood flow are both a consequence of diabetes and also thought to contribute5. Regular exercise increases insulin sensitivity, resulting in lower glucose levels in the blood and an increased ability to store these sugars as energy instead.
Exercise can provide a neuroprotective effect, facilitating neuroplasticity – the ability to create new neural pathways. What this means is that when specific pathways in the brain are blocked or damaged, the brain is capable of using other means of processing via the new pathways. This also increases the transmission of electrical impulses in the brain and improves its function.
Short term and long term benefits
Benefits of exercise on cognitive function can be seen after only 10 minutes of physical activity6, meanwhile exercising regularly for a longer period of time (6 months) can reverse cognitive impairment7. So, whether it’s a cognitive kick start that you need or making it a habit of a lifetime, exercising is a sure fine way to boost that brain power.
There is plenty of research to suggest that regular aerobic exercise can improve many aspects of cognitive function and reducing our chances of developing dementia, but what about other types of exercise and how can we make the most of it?
Five ways to boost the benefit to your brain when you exercise
- Perform free-weight exercises
Working out on exercise machines that provide artificial stability for you will downgrade your body’s natural stability and balance mechanisms, so try standing unsupported and using free weights, like these. Performing resistance exercises for as little as once or twice a week has been seen to work against cognitive decline and improve executive function – the foundation of planning, creativity and problem solving8).
- Combine both aerobic and resistance exercise
While aerobic exercise appears to be the most beneficial for brain health, incorporating both aerobic and resistance exercise provides optimal health benefits. In addition to enhancing brain function, a good combined exercise regime can improve cardiovascular fitness and reduce the risk of diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease.
- Work harder for shorter periods
Higher intensity exercise has the potential to increase insulin sensitivity9 and promote fat loss10. Shorter bursts of exercise are not only easier to fit into the day but also reduce the stress placed on the body experienced with long-duration exercise.
- Choose something you enjoy and stick at it
By choosing an exercise you enjoy and sticking at it, you're more likely to achieve recommended physical activity levels. Whether it’s gardening, walking, swimming, water aerobics or running, the list goes on and on for types of exercises that will keep us active and boost that brain function. Our Exercise and fitness centre contains plenty of ideas to get you started – and keep you motivated – when you want to get moving more.
- Try one-legged exercises
We spend most of our time on one leg during walking and running, so it makes sense to mimic this in our exercise choices. Balance dysfunction is a common problem in dementia, but by performing balancing exercises we may be able to strengthen the spine and supporting muscles to prevent this from occurring. Closing the eyes in a safe environment during activities such as yoga or Pilates will heighten the challenge on the other two systems of balance i.e. the ears and muscles.
More ways to keep your brain healthy and decrease or delay your risk of dementia
We’ve seen that keeping physically active plays an important role in maintaining brain function throughout our lifetime, but there are other lifestyle factors to take into account. Here are some suggestions that are supported by scientific research.
Diet and dementia
There is evidence to suggest that a healthy diet, containing plenty of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables may protect the brain: a study that appeared in the journal Neurology in January 2018 found a correlation between daily consumption of green, leafy vegetables and a slowing of age-related cognitive decline11.
Staying socially engaged
Staying socially connected may also help keep the brain healthy. A large study in China looked at five forms of social engagement: marital status, whether subjects lived alone or with others, emotional connectedness (i.e. whether they had someone to share their thoughts with), the availability of support if they needed help and participation in social events. Researchers found that high social engagement seems to prevent or delay dementia. Maintaining or increasing social engagement levels was also linked to reduced dementia risk12.
Staying mentally active
Research around the effectiveness of cognitive training in the prevention of cognitive decline and dementia is inconclusive. However learning a new skill, pursuing a new hobby, or taking classes may help preserve brain function in both the long and short term13.
Our commitment to healthy aging
At AXA and AXA PPP we’re committed to helping people live healthier, more fulfilling lives for longer – an imperative as life expectancy continues to rise. Find out more about the work we’re doing to uncover the secrets of a long and healthy life at Inside AXA – The future of ageing.
Or for more articles, inspiration and tips for living better for longer, check out or Ageing Well centre.
1 Lautenschlager, N. T., Cox, K. & Cyarto, E. V. (2012) The influence of exercise on brain aging and dementia. Molecular Basis of Disease. 1822: 474-481.
2 Erickson KI, Voss MW, Prakash RS, et al. Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011;108(7):3017-22.
3 Morris, J. K., Vidoni, E. D., Johnson, D. K., Van Sciver, A., Mahnken, J. D., Honea, R. A., Wilkins, H. M., Brooks, W. M., Billinger, S. A., Swerdlow, R. H. & Burns, J. M. (2017) Aerobic exercise for alzheimer’s disease: a randomized controlled pilot trial. Public Library of Science ONE, 12(2): e0170547.
4 Elwood, P., Galante, J., Pickering, J., Palmer, S., Bayer, A., Ben-Shlomo, Y., Longley, M. & Gallacher, J. (2013) Healthy lifestyles reduce the incidence of chronic diseases and dementia: evidence from the caerphilly cohort study. Public Library of Science ONE 8 (12): e81877. Doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0081877.
5 Neth, B. J., & Craft, S. (2017) Insulin resistance and alzheimer’s disease: bioenergetic linkages. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience. 9: 345.
6 Basso, J. C. & Suzuki, W. A. (2017) The effects of acute exercise on mood, cognition, neurophysiology and neurochemical pathways: a review. Brain Plasticity. 2:127-152.
7 Blumenthal, J. A., Smith, P. J., Mabe, S., Hinderliter, A., Lin, P., Liao, L., Welsh-Bohmer, K. A., Browndyke, J. N., Kraus, W. E., Doraiswamy, p. M., Burke, J. R. & Sherwood, A. (2018) Lifestyle and neurocognition in older adults with cognitive impairments. Neurology, 92; e212e223.
8 Diamond, A. (2015). Effects of physical exercise on executive functions: going beyond simply moving to moving with thought. Annals of Sports Medicine Research. 2: 1011
9 Sogaard, D., Lund, M. T., Sheuer, C. M., Dehlbaek, M. S., Dideriksen, S. G., Abildskov, C. V., Christensen, K. K., Dohlman, T., Larsen, S., Vigelso, A. H., Dela, F. & Helge, J. W. (2018) High intensity interval training improves insulin sensitivity in older individuals. Acta Physiolgica, 222; e13009 doi: 10.1111/apha.13009.
10 Boutcher, S. H. (2010) High intensity exercise and fat loss. Journal of Obesity. 11; 868305 10.1155/2011/868305.
11 Martha Clare Morris, Yamin Wang, Lisa L. Barnes, David A. Bennett, Bess Dawson-Hughes, Sarah L. Booth Nutrients and bioactives in green leafy vegetables and cognitive decline
Neurology Jan 2018, 90 (3) e214-e222; DOI: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000004815.
12 Zi Zhou1,2, Ping Wang1,2 & Ya Fang Social Engagement and Its Change are Associated with Dementia Risk among Chinese Older Adults: A Longitudinal Study Scientific Reportsvolume 8, Article number: 1551 (2018).
13 Stay Mentally and Socially Active Alzheimers Association.
Social activities for the older generation – AXA PPP healthcare
Improve your health with a hobby – AXA PPP healthcare
Dementia signs symptoms and diagnosis – AXA PPP healthcare
From life span to health span - Top tips for ageing well – AXA PPP healthcare
Exercise & fitness centre – AXA PPP healthcare
Ageing well centre – AXA PPP healthcare
Exercise and physical activity – Alzheimer’s Society factsheet