The benefits of exercise for Alzheimer’s disease

Alzheimer’s disease is a degenerative condition in which the brain cells progressively degenerate which leads to a loss of memory, cognition, physical and mental function, and gradual decline of quality of life. In 2014, around 332,000 Australian’s were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and this number is expected to grow to 550,000 within the next 10 years. This growth is due to our ageing population with the baby boomer generation, and increased life expectancy.

The causes of Alzheimer’s Disease are relatively unknown, however researcher’s believer it may share some risk factors with Heart Disease. Low physical activity levels, being overweight, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes are some of the risk factors linked to heart diseases that may also increase your risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Additionally, testosterone is an important hormone for brain health and the maintenance of brain structure and function. A reduction of testosterone levels in both males and females is a natural part of the ageing process and researchers have found a correlation between testosterone levels in older men, and their future risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease.

As mentioned above, physical inactivity is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. So regular exercise can be an important tool for preventing, delaying, or managing Alzheimer’s disease. This includes:

  • Slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s disease in people with mild to moderate cognitive impairment
  • Improving physical and mental function
  • Slowing or reversing the muscle wasting often associated with advanced disease
  • Improving mood and depression in patients with existing disease
  • Lessening behavioural problems in people with advanced disease.

The main goals of exercise for Alzheimer’s patients should be to maintain/increase muscle strength, reduce cardiovascular disease risk factors, increase testosterone levels, reduce falls risk and provide a socially engaging and interactive environment.

The general recommendation for Alzheimer’s patients is to start with 30 minutes of exercise at least 5 days of the week. This can be broken up to 5-10 minute blocks throughout the day if 30 minutes cannot be tolerated.

30 minutes can be made up of cardiovascular exercise, resistance training and flexibility exercises. Cardiovascular exercise reduces the cardiovascular disease risk factors and can include walking, swimming, cycling, dancing, etc.

Exercise should also include resistance exercise or weight training to optimize testosterone levels and assist with brain cell maintenance and cognitive function. This can be via bands, bodyweight, gym based equipment, or Pilates exercise.

Flexibility is another important element that is often neglected. This should be performed 2-3 x week and can include stretches, yoga, tai chi, etc.
Alzheimer’s patients may also benefit from regular home exercise or through group classes. This can help to provide a socially engaging and interactive environment.

As always, speak to you doctor, exercise physiologist, or physio prior to commencing any new exercise.

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