Regular running reduces the risk of dementia

Regular running reduces the risk of dementia
Regular running reduces the risk of dementia

1 in 5 people will develop some form of dementia, women more often than men. The good news is: many of the risk factors are within your control. Running is one of the things that can keep your brain sharp. How exactly does that work? We spoke to Marissa Zwan, senior researcher at the Alzheimer Center Amsterdam and also a runner herself.

What is dementia?

‘Dementia is not one disease, but a collective name for symptoms that affect the brain. Brain function gradually declines, making simple daily activities increasingly difficult. People often immediately think of forgetfulness, but other symptoms can also occur,’ says Marissa Zwan. ‘If dementia occurs at a younger age, we more often see other complaints such as passivity, depression or changes in behavior.’

‘Dementia is caused by a brain disease, in about 60-70% by Alzheimer’s disease. Age is the most important determining factor: the older you get, the more likely you are to develop dementia. As we get older, more people develop dementia. There are currently about 290,000 people in the Netherlands, but we expect this to (more than) double by 2050. Dementia is also already the most expensive public disease in the Netherlands.’

Treatment and prevention of dementia

There are treatment options that can alleviate symptoms, but there is currently no cure for dementia. ‘That is precisely why prevention is so important,’ says Zwan. ‘We have seen that in recent years people have become more aware of their health and how they can age healthily. That is very nice to see. We hope this trend continues and people understand how much influence they have on their future.’

How does running affect dementia?

‘It is not yet fully known how exactly exercise can protect you against dementia. Many studies show that exercise, especially aerobic training such as running, keeps your brain healthy,” says Zwan. ‘A healthy lifestyle and exercise are good for your memory and also prevent the harmful effects of normal aging, but can also reduce your risk of dementia. There are several reasons for this.’ It comes down to the following:

  • the connection between the brain cells is improved and strengthened
  • blood flow to the brain is improved
  • the production of new brain cells is stimulated

The interesting thing about it: You benefit from exercise at any age, even if you already have Alzheimer’s damage in your brain. ‘For example, we see that the production of a specific Alzheimer’s protein is inhibited, which means that the disease progresses less quickly. The inflammatory responses in the brain are also reduced. Further research is needed to gather more evidence and to better understand the effect of, for example, the duration, intensity and frequency of exercise.’

What can you do?

‘People often assume that dementia is hereditary, but that is not the whole story. And that is actually good news, because it means that you have many risk factors under your control: exercise, nutrition, obesity and diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol, smoking and drinking alcohol. I sometimes say to people: what is good for your heart is also good for your brain,’ says Zwan.

‘What’s good for your heart is also good for your brain’

Reduce risk of dementia

Walk regularly and maintain an active lifestyle

New research focuses on what works best in terms of intensity, frequency, etc. At this time, it is advisable to follow the general guidelines for exercise, i.e.: at least 150 minutes per week of moderately intensive exercise, spread over several days. More is even better.

Ensure a healthy lifestyle

This means: a healthy and varied diet, stress reduction, enough sleep, not smoking or drinking a lot of alcohol.

Walk together with a buddy or group

Research shows that social contacts are an important factor in the prevention of dementia. And it’s even more fun too.

Also keep stimulating your mind

Learn new things, stay curious, look for new places, play a musical instrument or strategic games.

Marissa Zwan is a senior researcher at the Alzheimer Center of the Amsterdam UMC. She is currently participating in the FINGER-NL study that investigates the effect of lifestyle adjustments on brain functions in healthy people with an increased risk of dementia.

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The article is in Dutch

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