Unlike heart health, which many know can often be managed with diet and exercise, it can sometimes feel as though brain health is out of our control as we age. But research is providing the medical community with a better understanding of cognitive decline, including specific activities and lifestyle changes that could affect the likelihood of developing dementia. Now, a new study has found that doing one thing in particular every day for 20 minutes could significantly reduce your risk of dementia, even if you start later in life. Read on to see what you can start doing right now to keep your brain healthy.
The latest brain health research comes from a study published on Jan. 7 in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association. Researchers studied brains from 404 deceased participants between the ages of 70 and 80 that were donated to science as part of the Rush Memory and Aging Project conducted in Chicago. They also collected data on each participant’s physical activity and movement levels throughout their later phase of life.
Examination of that brain tissue found that those participants who were more active and moved more later in life had higher levels of a protein that has been shown to strengthen the communication between brain cells through synapses, CNN reports. The proteins were even observed in more active participants whose brains showed other physical signs of dementia’s onset, meaning the protective benefits could still be viable in later phases of life.
“The more physical activity, the higher the synaptic protein levels in brain tissue. This suggests that every movement counts when it comes to brain health,” Kaitlin Casaletto, PhD, an assistant professor of neurology in the Memory and Aging Center at the University of California San Francisco, told CNN in an email, adding that her team recommends aiming for 150 min per week—or 20 minutes per day—of physical activity.
The research team’s findings focus on an element of brain health concerning the passage of electrical impulses between neurons. “Synapses are the critical communicating junctions between nerve cells and are really where the magic happens when it comes to cognition,” Casaletto wrote in the email. “All of our thinking and memory occurs as a result of these synaptic communications.”
When it comes to slowing or stopping the onset of dementia, the body must repair and replace proteins on synapses in the brain and keep them in the correct proportions. “There are many proteins present at the synapse that help facilitate different aspects of the cell-to-cell communication. Those proteins need to be in balance with one another in order for the synapse to function optimally,” Casaletto wrote. “Several prior studies consistently show … higher levels of these same synaptic proteins in brain tissue associate with better cognitive performance, independent of plaques and tangles.”
According to experts connected to the study, the research team’s finding of a positive correlation between physical activity and protective proteins could be important for addressing dementia in the future. “These data reinforce the importance of incorporating regular physical activity into our everyday lives—no matter how young or old we are,” Heather Snyder, vice president of medical and scientific relations for the Alzheimer’s Association, which in part helped to fund the study, said in a statement.
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Casaletto concluded that while the study’s findings didn’t establish a firm cause-and-effect between dementia and exercise, it still represented a breakthrough in our understanding of the relationship between them. “We have described, for the first time in humans, that synaptic functioning may be a pathway through which physical activity promotes brain health,” she wrote to CNN. “I think these findings begin to support the dynamic nature of the brain in response to our activities, and the capacity of the elderly brain to mount healthy responses to activity even into the oldest ages.”
If you’re looking to get moving, experts recommend beginning easy and working your way to more sustained exercise over time. “Start by walking just five to 10 minutes daily over the first few days while you figure out the best time and place for your walks,” fitness expert Dana Santas tells CNN. “Once you’ve determined the logistics, begin adding a few minutes more to each walk. Ideally, you want to get up to about 20 to 30 minutes per day.”
“Take steps to make it sustainable, so it becomes a part of your lifestyle that you enjoy and take pride in rather than viewing it negatively, like a chore,” she adds.
Other research has also recently shed light on how exercising might impact dementia risk over time. In a study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology in July 2021, researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center looked into the connection between Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia and exercise. The Texas scientists were interested in finding out what could be done to improve the quality of life for the more than six million Americans living with some form of dementia.
The year-long study enrolled 70 men and women aged 55 to 80 with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), which progresses to full-blown Alzheimer’s disease half the time. Researchers split the participants into two groups: The first was assigned to do some brisk walking multiple times a week, while the second took part in a stretching and toning class with no aerobic component. The former group began with three workout sessions a week lasting 25 to 30 minutes, and by seven months in, they built up to four or five brisk walking sessions each week that lasted 30 to 40 minutes. According to the study, the walking group saw increased motor skills and improved memory and cognitive function, in addition to improved cardio fitness. The group assigned to do stretching and toning activities for a year, however, did not.
“Aerobic exercise is very important for improving both vascular function and brain function,” said Rong Zhang, PhD, the study’s lead researcher and a neurology professor at UT Southwestern, told Healthline. “The brain is a unique organ. It needs constant blood flow and oxygen supply.”