Physical Activity – can it cure dementia?

If someone was to ask you what you think the top three leading causes of death in Australia is, what would be your response? Would you even think to mention dementia? Well you should… Dementia is the third leading cause of death in Australia and the worst part is that dementia is fatal as there is currently no cure.

What is dementia?

Dementia is a term used to describe a collection of symptoms that are caused by disorders affecting the brain and contribute to a progressive decline in a person’s function. Symptoms can include but are not limited to a loss of:

  • Memory
  • Intellect
  • Rationality
  • Social skills
  • Physical functioning

What causes dementia?

The biggest risk factor for developing dementia is age; one in eight people aged over 65years have dementia. But family history, heredity and genetics also play a significant role in determining your likelihood of developing dementia.

So by now you are probably thinking “but I can’t help getting older”, “dementia runs in my family”, “well of course there is no cure, if genetics are involved.” And yes all of these points are valid, BUT recent research suggests that 30% of dementia cases can be attributed to modifiable factors.

Modifiable factors = lifestyle / environmental factors that you can control or change.

For example:

  • Diabetes
  • Hypertension
  • Obesity
  • Physical Inactivity

It is important to note that all of these factors are connected. Having one of these risk factors pre-disposes you to developing another. For example if you are overweight, there is a higher risk of you having hypertension and/or diabetes. The more risk factors you have = greater your likelihood is of developing dementia.

So… is there actually a cure?

Like I said before, there is currently no cure for dementia, and without medical break-through the number of people living with dementia in Australia is expected to rise.

BUT…

The beauty of modifiable factors is that they can be changed. We have the capacity to reduce our risk of developing diabetes, hypertension or being overweight, which ultimately means we have the ability to reduce our risk of dementia.

How can we do this?

We all know that regular physical activity is an important contributor to overall health (and if you didn’t know this you’ve come to the right place). But did you know that being physically inactive leads to a decline in cognitive function? Physical activity reduces our risk of chronic disease (e.g., hypertension and diabetes) and therefore has the potential to serve as a protective factor against the development of dementia. Here’s how:

  • Improves cerebral blood flow
  • Reduces vascular factors
  • Decreases the secretion of stress hormones
  • Stimulates brain plasticity
  • Creates positive changes in the brain’s white matter

Take home message

It is important to remember that not all types of dementia can be link to environmental or lifestyle factors that can be modified. However regular physical activity is one of the most important steps in maintaining physical and mental well-being, quality of life and managing chronic conditions. Exercise Physiologists are equipped with the knowledge, skills and competencies to design, deliver and evaluate safe and effective interventions for people with chronic conditions and we play a vital role in reducing the prevalence of dementia.