Normal forgetfulness --> Mild Cognitive Impairment --> Dementia.
Dementia is an umbrella term that causes difficulties with thinking, memory and/or executive functions that interfere with everyday life. It is a difficult disease to deal with, not only for the individual, but also for the family members, friends, and care takers. Almost 1 million Canadians are cognitively impaired, half of this group with severe symptoms and this number is growing fast. It is projected that by 2040, the cost of managing dementia will exceed our current total health budget.
So here we go. Long (and complicated) story short (and simplified).
People who suffer from dementia show protein build up / plaques in a specific part of the brain called the hippocampus. When scientists discovered these plaques they were thought to be THE cause of the disease. As per usual, drug companies then spent billions of dollars to develop a drug that could remove these plaques from the brain and they were eventually successful.. but guess what? Removing the plaques, didn't change anything! After all that time and money, there were no improvements in brain function! The protein build up in dementia is a consequence of the disease and NOT the cause. We now know, that for most people, dementia is a result of vascular disease and decreased blood flow to the brain is a trigger for dementia. With reduced blood flow to the brain, there is less supply of energy and not enough "washing out". This causes the unwanted proteins to accumulate. So the question is no longer how do we treat the plaques, the question becomes: can we protect our brains from a decline in blood supply? And if yes, then how?
This post is on the yes and how.
I would like to spread the word that we have the ability to prevent and control a major part of how we age. The table above implies that "If you can avoid these things, and do some other things, you can help to prevent yourself from dementia." I bet you know what I am going to highlight next... yup, you guessed it! Physical inactivity is a risk factor for dementia and there is evidence to support that exercise and movement can improve memory function.
When we move our muscles, chemical messengers (aka hormones) are released from the muscles into the bloodstream. These messengers travel to the brain and provide brain cells with a healthy environment for growth. The more we move, the stronger the connections in our brain become. Isn't that cool?! Essentially we can grow our brains by moving our muscles!
It has been demonstrated that being active early in life adds protection against cognitive impairment later in life. To defend against dementia we must start way ahead of time however its never too late to improve or slow progression of already existing disease. Recent research findings indicate that physical activity allows the brain to function better even when there are already signs of brain aging as well as slowing the progression of Alzheimer's disease. I have seen for myself, clients with dementia who are actively engaging in exercise becoming more "mentally fit" and becoming more aware overtime.
So how much do we need early on in life to make a difference? How much do we need to help defend against dementia? Your brain needs a minimum of 1 hour per week of moderate exercise, only 10 minutes a day. However, your brain will thrive on 30 minutes per day. What's moderate mean? You should be huffing and puffing a little bit, should be slightly difficult to hold a conversation.
So lets get crackin! Take the stairs, go for a rapid lunch time walk, sprint to the water fountain every hour, whatever! Get that heart pumping and muscles contracting! Feed your brain the blood flow it deserves.
Note: Most of the information from this post was taken from a few presentations from Dr. Antoine Hakim, a neurologist at the Ottawa Hospital. If you would like to see or hear more, you can visit the YouTube Channel: uOttawa Brain and Mind Research Institute.