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Report finds that physical activity protects us from losing brain function

A new report by the Ontario Brain Institute (OBI) shows that more than one in seven cases of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) could be prevented by moderate physical activity.

AD is the most common form of dementia, affecting more than 13 per cent of Canadians 65 years of age or older.  It is a progressive loss of brain function that causes memory impairment, changes in thinking and behaviour, difficulty performing everyday activities and eventually death. While drugs can treat the symptoms of AD, there is currently no cure.

“Age and genetics are two of the biggest known risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease,” says Chris Ardern, report co-author and an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Health at York University. “Unfortunately, those are two things we can’t change.  But there is evidence to show that other, modifiable lifestyle factors  things like tobacco use, diet and exercise  may contribute to the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease and hold the key to minimizing its effects.”

OBI’s report, entitled The Role of Physical Activity in the Prevention and Management of Alzheimer’s Disease – Implications for Ontario, builds on a 2008 review by the Cochrane Collaboration, compiling and analyzing new findings from nearly 50 international studies. It’s the first in an annual series of literature reviews from OBI aimed at synthesizing important knowledge that can lead to better brain health.

“We’re interested in defining tangible ways that people can maintain and improve their cognitive function,” says Dr. Donald Stuss, President and Scientific Director of OBI. “This report brings together evidence from around the world into a comprehensive view of the relationship between physical activity and Alzheimer’s disease.  It allows us to see trends and make more conclusive statements about how we can use physical activity to ensure a healthier brain, now and in the future.”

Perhaps most significantly, the OBI report suggests that as few as five 30-minute walks per week can prevent up to 16 per cent of AD cases.

“This is a call to action,” says Dr. Stuss. “Nearly 60 per cent of Canadians are inactive, and it’s been this way for nearly 20 years.  In Ontario, less than half of our older adults meet Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines.  We need to invest in our future by taking simple steps towards health.  Our report shows that in just two and a half hours every week, you can significantly improve your chances of maintaining a healthy brain into your old age.”

The report also shows that physical activity can contribute to managing AD symptoms by increasing a patient’s independence, improving their overall quality of life and effectively mitigating depression – a condition that is up to ten times more common in people with AD than in the general population.

“With our population of older adults growing rapidly in Ontario, these findings could have significant meaning for our health-care system and our caregivers,” says Michael Rotondi, report co-author and an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Health at York University. “Estimates show that if even 20 per cent of inactive people took part in moderate physical activity, we could save up to $170 million in health-care costs and significantly reduce the burden of care required by people with Alzheimer’s disease.”

While the OBI report provides solid evidence for the ability of physical activity to prevent and manage AD, more research is needed to determine the amount and intensity of exercise needed to achieve the greatest benefits to brain health.

To read the full OBI report entitled, “The Role of Physical Activity in the Prevention and Management of Alzheimer’s Disease – Implications for Ontario” visit the Ontario Brain Institute website.

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