Physical activity to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia by 90%

According to a study recently published in the prestigious journal Science, physical exercise prevents the development of Alzheimer’s disease by promoting the production of new neurons in the hippocampus of the brain.

Like all organs in the human body, the structure and function of the brain gradually deteriorate with age. This aging is completely normal and, in the majority of cases, only causes a slight loss of “flexibility” in the brain which does not have a major impact on a person’s quality of life.

When this damage becomes too great, on the other hand, it can cause the onset of incapacitating dementia which strongly alters behavior, personality and all cognitive functions (reasoning, analysis, language). One of the most common dementias is Alzheimer’s disease, which currently affects approximately 30 million people worldwide and could affect as many as 100 million by 2050 if no progress is made in prevention or treatment of this disease. Identifying ways to prevent, or at least slow down, the development of this disease therefore represents one of the great challenges of modern science.

A study conducted on 1462 women for 44 years

Research in recent years suggests that regular physical activity is one of the main lifestyle factors that can slow down the decline in cognitive functions associated with age and thus prevent the onset of dementia. Several studies carried out over the last ten years have in fact observed that people who are physically active are less affected by a deterioration in their cognitive functions as they age and are less at risk of being affected by various types of dementia. For example, a Swedish study that followed for 44 years (from 1968) a group of 1462 Swedish women between the ages of 38 and 60 reported that those who were

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the most active and in the best cardiovascular shape had a 90% lower risk of suffering from dementia compared to those who were sedentary.

This protective effect of exercise against cognitive decline associated with aging is due, in part, to the positive impact of physical activity on the heart. Although it represents only 3% of the total body weight, the brain is a richly vascularized organ which alone receives 15% of the cardiac output and uses approximately 20% of all the oxygen consumed by the body. The activities of the brain, such as thought, memory or reasoning are therefore extremely dependent on an adequate blood supply and, by extension, on the state of health of the heart and vessels.

Physical activity protects the heart and brain

In addition to the heart, studies also show that physical exercise has a direct effect on the brain: in older people, high maximal aerobic fitness (a marker of cardiovascular health) is associated with increased brain size and hippocampus (the seat of memory). Simply put, regular exercise causes changes in the physical structure of the brain itself, and these changes translate into better cognitive function. This phenomenon is well illustrated by the results of a study carried out on mice genetically predisposed to developing Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers observed that mice that were subjected to daily aerobic exercise (3 hours of running on a wheel) showed better cognition, as determined by their ability to learn how to move through a maze.

Physical activity leads to an increase in the production of neurons

This positive effect is correlated with an increase in the production of new neurons in the hippocampus (neurogenesis) as well as with an increase in brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a growth factor known to promote the creation and the reorganization of neural networks. These two phenomena seem absolutely essential to mediate the protective effect of exercise, since the increase in neurogenesis and BDNF levels using genetic and pharmacological approaches manages to recreate the preservation of cognitive functions in sedentary animals.

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Whether because of its positive effects on cardiovascular health or on the function of neurons, physical activity currently represents one of the best weapons available to us to reduce the incidence of these diseases and the heavy burden they impose on those affected and those around them.


Hörder H et al. Midlife cardio-vascular fitness and dementia: A 44-year longitudinal population study in women. Neurology 2018; 90: e1298-e1305.

Choi SH et al. Combined adult neurogenesis and BDNF mimic exercise effects on cognition in an Alzheimer’s mouse model. Science 2018; 361(6406).


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