Alzheimer’s is the best known and most feared form of dementia. Early onset Alzheimer’s disease often has a strong genetic component and is unaffected by any lifestyle changes. However late-life Alzheimer’s, affecting people in their 80s and 90s, has a minor genetic component and its onset can be delayed or prevented with lifestyle changes.
Dr. Gary Small, director of UCLA’s Longevity Center, says the focus on keeping the brain healthy should begin early. Dr. Majid Fotuhi, chairman of the Neurology Institute for Brain Health and Fitness and a neurology professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine is of like mind.
Staying physically fit is the most important element to keeping the brain young later in life, they say. Remaining socially engaged and mentally active in new and challenging ways are the two other components to long-term brain health. Fotuhi says ballroom dancing is perfect because it combines physical activity, social interaction and the mental challenge of remembering the steps.
Researchers have shown how even moderate exercise can actually increase the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for forming memories, essentially turning back the clock and making the brain younger.
After 50, the brain — and the hippocampus — typically begins losing volume. The hippocampus loses 1% of its volume every two years and accelerates up to 2% per year later in life. But this loss is not set in stone.
Dr. Arthur Kramer at the University of Illinois and his colleagues took 120 older adults and put half of them into an exercise group, which walked three days a week, and the other half on a stretching regimen. After a year, the group that walked had better memory than at the start of the study. More than that, MRI scans showed that hippocampal volume increased, on average, by 2%, effectively making their brains a year or two younger. The brains of the group that stretched continued to age.
Another study at the University of Pittsburgh showed that exercise improved the thinking speed of previously sedentary people in their 80s. Staying in shape helps maintain a healthy blood flow to the brain, critically important because blood vessels make up one-third of the brain’s volume.
The message is clear. By exercising, preferably in a social group, you can make your brain younger and put off the risk of Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.