Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Protect your brain!

Dementia is probably the most feared illness to which older adults are prone. While we cannot do anything about the biggest risk factor, aging, there are many other risk factors that are under our control.

I mention aging because the likelihood of dementia rises rapidly as we get into our 70’s and beyond, and the only way I know of to prevent getting older is to die young, which I do not recommend.

So-called “mind games” have been much touted but there is little evidence they do any good.

The “modifiable” factors that increase the odds of dementia include physical inactivity, cigarette smoking, depression, low education, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and hearing loss. It has been said that anything which is good for the heart is good for the brain, and that certainly applies to many of these factors.

Stopping smoking if you are a smoker will add years to your life and improve the quality of your life. Treating hypertension and diabetes will lower your risk of both heart attack and dementia. Losing weight obviously helps numerous health issues, from heart disease to arthritis, as well as dementia. If only I had a magic bullet to make this easy.

Depression and hearing loss share the common factor of increasing isolation. Treating depression and getting hearing aids both allow more social participation, which in turn decreases the risk of dementia.

I have saved the best (studied) for last. Innumerable scientific studies have shown that regular physical activity lowers the risk of dementia and pushes it out later if it occurs. This does not mean you have to run marathons. Walking, gardening, pickleball or line dancing are all helpful.

How exercise works is becoming clearer. Studies in mice have shown that exercise creates more neurons and synapses (the connections between neurons). There is also evidence in mice that exercise reduces the inflammation that harms brain cells. More recently, a study of older Chicago residents followed closely over decades has found similar benefits in the human brain. There was a strong correlation between being more active physically and healthier brains with less inflammation. None of these seniors formally “exercised,” but activity monitors were used to see how often they moved versus sat.

Bottom line: get off the couch and walk, do housework or play with the grandchildren. Move that body for at least an hour a day. Your brain will thank you.

Prescription for Bankruptcy. Buy the book on Amazon


  1. I'm quite active, but I wonder if there isn't a post hoc ergo propter hoc here: does lack of exercise increase dementia, does dementia lead to an apathy in which there's inactivity, or are both lack of activity and dementia due to some underlying neural cause. If either of the last two are true, increasing your exercise would do nothing to retard or delay dementia.

  2. While you argue chicken and egg with humans, the same is not true for mice, so I think the science suggests exercise is truly the critical variable.