Alzheimer’s disease is a neurological disorder. This means that it is a disease that affects the brain. It causes progressive damage to the brain. It is worth noting that Alzheimer’s disease is a very common form of dementia in Australia, contributing to about two-thirds of cases. Brain degeneration in Alzheimer’s affects thinking skills, memory, mood, emotions, and behaviour. As such, the affected individual becomes unable to carry out his or her daily activities without hindrance. The symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease worsen as the disease progresses.
What causes Alzheimer’s disease?
Medical researchers are currently studying the chemical changes that cause damage to the brain cells in Alzheimer’s disease. Apart from those with the familial form of the disease, scientists do not fully understand why some people have the condition while others do not. Several factors may contribute to the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, including health, genetic, and environmental factors.
The major characteristics of Alzheimer’s disease are specific changes in the brain such as the formation of fibrous patches (amyloid plaques), and neurofibrillary tangles. A protein, known as beta-amyloid builds up, thus causing the formation of amyloid plaques outside the cells of the brain. Another protein known as tau builds up inside the brain cells resulting in the formation of neurofibrillary tangles.
Accumulation of these proteins disrupts signal transmission within the brain due to the damages that they cause between cells of the brain. Eventually, the brain cells die off, leading to shrinkage of brain volume. These brain changes do not occur all-at-once. They do so gradually, and in fact, develop 30 years before the symptoms show up 1. A 2013 study by Villemagne shows that Alzheimer’s disease progresses slowly, over 30 years before the symptoms are diagnosed. Symptoms are usually diagnosed in people above 70 years of age. The brain can accommodate early damage, but as the disease progresses, the damage becomes so great that brain function is affected.
Symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease?
The disease starts slowly. Symptoms are usually subtle in the early stages. However, as the disease progresses, the symptoms become more obvious, interfering with daily activities. Symptoms vary differently.
Common symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease include:
- Memory loss
- Inability to plan, solve problems, think logically, and organise well
- Difficulties in language usage, such as understanding conversations and using the right word for each occasion or situation.
- Loss of enthusiasm for activities you once enjoyed
- Disorientation, even in places that you are familiar with
- Being unable to process instructions and questions
- Social disorientation
- Being emotionally unpredictable
- Mood, personality, and behavioural changes
There are variations in symptoms as the disease progressed. It is worth noting that not only one part of the brain is affected. A person’s abilities fluctuate daily and can worsen in times of stress, ill-health or fatigue. Alzheimer’s disease progresses from mild to moderate, and severe. A person at the severe stage of the disease generally requires continuous care.
Preventing Alzheimer’s disease: How does exercise help?
Alzheimer’s disease becomes a major concern as we age. The mere thought of having Alzheimer’s can be very frightening, especially if your loved one is affected. The fact is, there’s a lot of promise concerning treatment and cure for Alzheimer’s disease. Studies have shown that the risk of Alzheimer’s disease can be reduced through a combination of effective yet simple lifestyle changes.
By taking note of your risk factors and leading a lifestyle that promotes the health of your brain, you can boost your chances of long-term good brain health while also safeguarding your cognitive abilities.
Studies by the Alzheimer’s Research & Prevention Foundation shows that engaging regularly in exercise can reduce a person’s risk of developing this disease by up to 50%. Also, exercise can impede further deterioration in people who are already experiencing cognitive issues.
Aim for up to 150 minutes of exercise per week: Ideally, you should try out a combined therapy of strength training and cardio exercise.
Build up your muscles. They will boost your brain health: Engaging in moderate weight and resistance training not only increases your muscle mass, but it also helps maintain your brain’s health. For people who are over 65 years of age, doing 2-3 strength sessions per week can reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease by 50%.
Add coordination and balance exercises: Head injuries in elderly people is a major risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Balance & coordination exercises help to avoid spills. It also maintains agility. You could try Tai Chi, yoga, or exercises using balance balls.
What does the research say about the effect of exercise on Alzheimer’s disease?
Research shows that the brain benefits from exercise, just as your body does. Exercise may even help prevent loss of memory as well as Alzheimer’s disease. A 20-year study led by Professor Cassandra Szoeke sought to investigate the effect that exercise has on brain health. The study involved women between the ages of 45 to 65. After taking note of the subject’s vitals (including exercise routines, diet, cognitive definition, etc.), the researcher made an interesting discovery.
According to Szoeke, they had thought a person who exercises daily at 60 years of age may not enjoy the same benefits as another person who exercises at 40 years of age. Surprisingly, this wasn’t the case. The good news is that it is never too late to start.
According to Szoeke, a 2012 study 1 performed by her team here in Australia showed that Alzheimer’s develops at least 30 years before the symptoms manifest. This means that if you perform regular exercises in your 40s, the effects will cumulate. So, if it takes roughly 30 years for Alzheimer’s to develop and you’ve seen the impact of exercise on the disease, you can imagine the impact that a 30-year exercise regimen will have on the disease.
A 2011 study 2 by Deborah Barnes examining the major risk factors for dementia found that exercise helps to slow down the pace at which cognitive function declines. The study also showed that a sedentary and inactive lifestyle constituted a greater risk than other factors. The fact is, anytime you exercise, aerobic exercises especially, blood flow to your brain increases. This increased blood flow exposes your brain to very essential growth factors that trigger the formation of new blood vessels and brain cells. This is very important as healthy blood vessels nourish these infant brain cells, leading to improvement in cognitive function.
Are you ready to start an exercise plan? Here’s what you should know
If you’ve lived a sedentary or an inactive lifestyle for a while,
beginning a new exercise plan may seem somewhat intimidating. But you should
note that it is better to do a little exercise, than not at all. Moderate
weekly exercises can boost your health in profound ways. Choose what you enjoy
doing. Begin small – maybe with a 15-minute walk a few times daily – this will
build your self-confidence and momentum gradually.
- Villemagne, V., Burnham, S., Bourgeat, P., Brown, B., Ellis, K., Salvado, O., Szoeke, C., Macaulay, S., Martins, R., Maruff, P., Ames, D., Rowe, C. and Masters, C. (2013). Amyloid β deposition, neurodegeneration, and cognitive decline in sporadic Alzheimer’s disease: a prospective cohort study. The Lancet Neurology, 12(4), pp.357-367.
- Barnes DE, Yaffe K. The projected effect of risk factor reduction on Alzheimer’s disease prevalence. Lancet Neurol. 2011;10(9):819–828. doi:10.1016/S1474-4422(11)70072-2