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New Study Shows How Exercise May Protect Your Brain – Even If You Already Show Signs of Dementia

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It’s no secret that exercise is good for you, especially as you age. Here at AgingOptions Blog we like to encourage exercise as much as possible, and we often share tips and ideas for getting your physical activity in as much as possible. So, as you can imagine, we were excited to find this article from CNN, which reveals new research demonstrating an encouraging correlation between exercise and a decreased risk for dementia. It even shows that physical activity can fight dementia that’s already starting through strengthening the synapses that help our brain communicate with the body.

In the article from CNN, writer Sandee LaMotte gives us the scope of the study, explains its ramifications – and gives us all even more reason to get moving!

The Magic of Synaptic Health

As LaMotte explains, cognition—the science of thinking—is made possible by something in our brain called synapses. These synapses are critical pathways between our nerve cells that allow communication between different parts of the brain. That communication translates into thinking and eventually action.

The author of the new study, which appeared in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association, is assistant professor of neurology Kaitlin Casaletto. She told CNN that scientists have known for a long time that exercise reduces risk of dementia by 30 to 80 percent, but they didn’t know why. As the study has now shown, it has everything to do with the health of our synapses. Without keeping those communication lines open, the brain degrades and allows for dementia to take hold.

“We have described, for the first time in humans, that synaptic functioning may be a pathway through which physical activity promotes brain health,” Casaletto says. She adds, “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.”

Protein as the Key to Cognition

“A well-functioning brain keeps electrical signals moving smoothly through synapses from neuron to neuron and to other cells in the body,” CNN reports. “To do so, the brain needs to constantly replace worn-out proteins in those synapses.” In other words, if those synapses are the tracks and the electrical signals are the train, then what are the rails? Proteins.

Proteins in the brain need to be properly maintained, just like the rails of a train track, as the article explains. They wear out and are replaced by the body, and that’s what keeps everything running well. “There are many proteins present at the synapse that help facilitate different aspects of the cell-to-cell communication,” Casaletto told CNN. “Those proteins need to be in balance with one another in order for the synapse to function optimally.”

While scientists knew that exercise had an effect on the human brain, and had even tracked this effect in mice, no one could quite figure out the link. This new study advances the hypothesis that perhaps exercise has a maintenance effect on the proteins and synapses in our neural pathways.

How The Study Measures Exercise and Brain Function

The study had various aspects. In one, the researchers analyzed the protein levels in human brains—donated to science—by individuals who were between 70 and 80 years old. In another, they tracked the physical activity of elderly participants. The correlations they found were surprising, and exciting. The research showed that people who moved more had more protective proteins keeping their synapses moving smoothly. “The more physical activity, the higher the synaptic protein levels in brain tissue,” Casaletto explains. “This suggests that every movement counts when it comes to brain health.”

The most remarkable thing about this is that it works across the board, even for people who already show markers for Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. Higher levels of healthy synaptic proteins mean better cognitive performance in virtually all cases. Heather Snyder of the Alzheimer’s Association says it best: “These data reinforce the importance of incorporating regular physical activity into our everyday lives – no matter how young or old we are.”

Tips To Get Moving

If getting yourself up and moving isn’t part of your regular routine, don’t worry. The study showed that even movement as simple as walking can contribute to overall brain function.

Casaletto and her team recommend aiming for about 150 minutes per week of physical activity, walking included. Snyder adds that, “It’s important to find an exercise you enjoy so it can be sustainable in your routine.”

In the article, LaMotte asked CNN fitness contributor Dana Santas to provide some tips for getting started with exercise. We have summarized them below, but you can read the article for more details. Here are Dana’s exercise tips (summarized):

  1. Start simple and slow. Don’t try to do everything at once, or you’re more likely to get injured and your motivation will disappear.
  2. Walking is a great place to start. Begin with just 5-to-10 minute walks every day and build up to a moderate-to-brisk pace. After a few days, once you find your routine, work up to 20 t0 30 minutes of daily walking.
  3. Make movement a daily habit. The best way to make exercise part of your life is to make it something you can’t live without – a routine and simple part of your lifestyle. An even better approach is to move around while you’re doing something else, a practice referred to as habit-stacking. “For nearly eight years now, I’ve been doing 50 body-weight squats or two-minute wall sits while I brush my teeth,” Santas says as an example.
  4. Let it add up. “Let’s say you got up and moved three times an hour during your workday,” Santas says. “That’s 24 minutes of exercise daily. Add another 10 minutes of walking or stair climbing before or after work, and you’d be at 34 minutes daily, or 170 minutes per five-day workweek. That’s well over the weekly threshold of 150 minutes, or two-and-a-half hours, recommended by the World Health Organization — without ever setting foot in a gym.”

And as always, a reminder from us: before starting any new exercise regimen, be sure you consult with your doctor to make sure you’re going about it in as healthy a way as you can.

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(originally reported at

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