The human brain has a pattern of connectivity as unique as your fingerprints. It has the incredible capacity to perform 1,016 processes per second and consists of roughly 86 billion brain cells. Due to its unbelievable proficiency and our tendency to take this for granted, it’s not often that we ask ourselves ‘Am I leading a lifestyle that promotes optimal brain health?’ 

Engaging in regular physical activity is great  for our body, heart and BRAIN. Emerging research is demonstrating that those who lead physically inactive lifestyles are at greater risk of cognitive impairment and dementia. Whilst we currently do not know all of the causes of dementia and cannot control factors such as genetics and our age, we can modify our physical activity levels to reduce our risk.

Cognitive impairment and dementia are characterised by a decline in our cognitive functioning and has significant impacts on daily living and maintenance of our independence. Research has found that one of the greatest fears associated with aging is loss of cognitive function and independence. With this in mind, it seems like a ‘No Brainer’ to do everything in our power to assist in maintaining optimal cognition.

Currently over 320,000 Australians are living with dementia, this being 1 in every 10 over 65 year-olds. A further 1 in 5 have mild cognitive impairment and are at a significantly greater risk of developing dementia. Research suggests that if 5% of inactive people became more active every 5 years, this would reduce Australia’s Dementia prevalence by 11% by 2051. This equates to 100,000 fewer Australians suffering from dementia, achieved simply by modifying their physical activity levels.

Common questions/statements in regards to the influence of Physical Activity on the prevention of cognitive impairment and dementia

HOW DOES PHYSICAL EXERCISE HELP MY BRAIN?

Brain Plasticity is a term used to describe our brains ability to continually form new connections and cells as we learn, adapt and create new memories. In order to sustain the ability of the brain to remain ‘plastic’ and malleable we need to look after it, by feeding it with the nutrients and oxygen it requires. This can be achieved through PHYSICAL ACTIVITY. Physical activity results in the heart pumping a greater volume of oxygen and nutrient rich blood to the body’s vital organs and muscles including the BRAIN. This allows for new connections to be formed, old connections to remain and preserves the life span of brain cells. Brain imaging has identified that adults who partake in physical activity have increased brain volume in regions important for memory, learning, concentration and planning. Active adults have shown to have brain volumes and connectivity similar to younger adults, thus suggesting physical activity slows down age-related brain shrinkage.

Diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and obesity are modifiable risk factors that place an individual at greater risk of cognitive decline and dementia. These conditions increase the risk of cerebrovascular disease that can be harmful and significantly contribute to cognitive impairment. Through diet and exercise the risk of developing the above risk factors can be attenuated, consequently slowing cognitive decline.

AM I TOO YOUNG TO INFLUENCE MY COGNITIVE DECLINE?

Studies suggest that physical activity at all stages of life may contribute to the prevention of cognitive impairment and dementia. With dementia having a gradual onset, which occurs for many years prior to evident symptoms, it makes sense to address brain health as early as possible. Physical activity has also been shown to have acute, short-term benefits by promoting improved cognition. If you’re ever looking for ways to nudge away that ‘brain fog,’ a short bout of exercise will do you wonders.

AM I TOO OLD TO PREVENT/STOP MY BRAIN DETERIORATING?

Certainly not, it’s never too late! Studies have shown that physical activity can slow the decline in people with moderate cognitive impairment or dementia. Every bout of exercise promotes the delivery of oxygen and nutrient rich blood to the brain, which assists in the preservation of the brains volume and connections thus delaying cognitive decline. Physical activity also has the bonus of promoting emotional wellbeing, social engagement and physical health for those already experiencing cognitive impairment.

WHAT PHYSICAL ACTIVITY IS BEST FOR MY BRAIN?

When it comes to moving and being physically active there are a lot of determinants that come in to play, eg. intensity, duration, frequency and modality. This can be a lot to consider which often leads people to putting it into the too hard basket. A good gem to remember is ‘Anything is always better than nothing!’.

Both aerobic and resistance training have been shown to be beneficial for promoting brain health.

  • Aerobic training: Exercise that increases your breathing rate. For example, walking, jogging, swimming & some housework. Aerobic exercise enhances blood flow to the brain assisting in the delivery of oxygen rich blood and nutrients.

  • Resistance training: Exercise that utilises resistance/weights of some kind including your body weight. Resistance training promotes the health of blood vessels, and assists with the prevention of metabolic diseases that are significant risk factors for dementia.

The National Physical Activity Guidelines (NPAGs) are a useful place to start and is a handy tool to help you assess whether you are meeting the recommended guidelines for physical activity.

 If you, or a family member experience cognitive impairment or dementia, or simply wish to take steps in promoting your brain health, our Accredited Exercise Physiologist can help. Contact Hills Physiotherapy on 1300 9HILLS to book an appointment with an Accredited Exercise Physiologist.

Guest Blog by Hills Physiotherapy’s Exercise Physiologist, Miranda Morris