Experts have long believed that exercise can help protect people from developing dementia. However, while they did note a general pattern of risk reduction, studies on this topic have been small and often conflicting, with little consensus on what type, frequency or intensity of exercise is best.
“There is no clear prescription for physical activity that we can provide,” said Joel Salinas, an assistant professor of neurology at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine who specializes in treating people with dementia.
But three large, long-term studies released in recent months have attempted to identify the types, intensity, and duration of physical activity that provide the most comprehensive protection against dementia. These studies, which have followed thousands and even hundreds of thousands of people for years, confirm that, in many ways, regular physical activity plays a large role in reducing the risk of developing dementia.
Vigorous exercise seems to be best, but even unconventional exercises such as household chores can offer a huge benefit. Surprisingly, it is equally effective in reducing risk in people with a family history of dementia.
Many exercises can prevent dementia
In the first study, published July 27 in the journal Neurology, researchers analyzed the health information of 501,376 participants without dementia, from a British database called the UK Biobank, to establish links between physical activity and the risk of developing dementia. the disease.
One of the study’s authors, Huan Song, a researcher at West China Hospital at Sichuan University, said one of the main advantages of this database was that it contained “highly detailed genetic data” for participants.
This included a risk profile for participants based on whether they had genetic variants commonly associated with dementia or had direct relatives with the disease.
At the start of the study, participants filled out detailed questionnaires about their physical activities, such as exercising, climbing stairs, or walking, and whether they walked regularly or cycled to work. They were also asked about various lifestyle factors, including how often they perform household chores.
A major limitation of previous studies, Song said, is that the “definition of physical activity is very poor.” “Some use the full amount and others only focus on one activity mode.” British questionnaires provided privacy about the activities in which participants regularly participate.
The participants were followed for 11 years, of whom 5,185 developed dementia. The study found that in participants who engaged in regular, vigorous activities such as sports or strength training, the risk of developing dementia was reduced by 35%.
Surprisingly, people who reported doing household chores regularly also had a significant benefit: they had a 21% lower risk.
“Some people sweat a lot when doing housework,” said Sandra Weintraub, a neurologist at Northwestern University School of Medicine, who was not involved in the study. “It could be that if you do chores for three hours, that’s as good as 30 minutes of cardio.”
For Salinas, who recommends that people get 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity exercise per week, the results reinforce the idea that moderate to vigorous exercise can boost brain health.
Cultivating this exercise habit, he said, “is likely to have a very profound synergistic effect.” “You get a lot in terms of helping boost your health through physical activity.”
Perhaps most encouraging, the association between physical activity and a lower risk of dementia included participants with a family history of the disease.
“It’s very important to know that if you have a family history of dementia, you can use physical activity to lower your risk,” Song said.
Start doing what you love
The second paper, published in early August in the journal Neurology, combined 38 studies to find out which leisure activities were associated with a reduced risk of dementia. In all, the studies followed more than two million participants without dementia for at least three years, during which time 74,700 developed the condition.
After controlling for age, education and gender, the researchers found that participants who exercised regularly — such as walking, running, swimming, dancing, exercising or working out in the gym — had a 17% lower risk of developing dementia compared to those who did. who exercise regularly.
This meta-analysis shows that dementia prevention is not limited to one activity, or even one type of activity. “We recommend people do exercises that they enjoy,” said Li Shi, a researcher at Peking University and one of the study’s authors, given the variety of physical activities participants engaged in.
When it comes to reaping the benefits of physical activity, it’s never too early to start. In a third study published this month, researchers followed more than 1,200 children ages 7 to 15 for more than 30 years.
Those with higher levels of physical fitness as children had higher levels of cognitive functioning in middle age, suggesting that establishing a habit of lifelong physical activity could be beneficial for brain health.
Together, these studies suggest that the ways we move our bodies daily can build up over time. They also reinforce the idea that regular lifelong physical activity, in all its forms, goes a long way toward reducing the risk of dementia, even for people classified as high-risk.
“Your mind is a part of your body and will benefit from anything you do that is good for your overall health,” Weintraub said.
Translated by Luis Roberto M. Gonsalves
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