Gotta’ Run: Exercise to waylay memory loss and cognitive decline

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 13, 2021

Many years ago during high school, I was fortunate to live with a grandma and aunt, both of whom lived together. For their own reasons, they chose to help me through a rough time. Eventually, our family lost both of them to long-term dementia.

This was long before exercise became important to me. I was active in some sports but never thought anything about the long-range benefits of regular cardiovascular, heart-pumping exercise. But I began to wonder as both their mental and physical declines persisted for several years, could anything have helped them? Both stayed busy but neither exercised nor took their diets seriously.

I’ve been interested for years in researching how to hold off memory loss and cognitive decline. With the past week’s news of a drug that potentially could slow these declines, I thought this was a good time to visit what we can do, prompted by a radio podcast where two doctors said that 90% of cognitive decline is preventable.

We know that exercise has plenty of physical and mental health benefits, reducing cardiovascular disease and diabetes while strengthening the bones and muscles. Jonathan Graff-Radford, M.D, at the Mayo Clinic said, “It appears that regular physical activity benefits the brain. Studies show that people who are physically active are less likely to experience a decline in their mental function and have a lowered risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Physical activity is one of the known modifiable risk factors for dementia. Plus, regular exercise helps combat other Alzheimer’s disease risk factors, such as depression and obesity.”

He suggests that exercising several times a week for 30 to 60 minutes is likely to do the following for the brain:

  • Keep thinking, reasoning and learning skills sharp for healthy individuals
  • Improve memory, reasoning, judgment and thinking skills (cognitive function) for people with mild Alzheimer’s disease or mild cognitive impairment
  • Delay the start of Alzheimer’s for people at risk of developing the disease or slow the progress of the disease
  • Increase the size of the part of the brain that’s associated with memory formation (hippocampus)

Dr. Graff-Radford said, “Physical activity seems to help your brain not only by keeping the blood flowing but also by increasing chemicals that protect the brain. Physical activity also tends to counter some of the natural reduction in brain connections that occurs with aging.”

More research is needed to know how, and how much adding physical activity may improve memory or slow the progression of cognitive decline. Nonetheless, regular exercise is important to stay physically and mentally fit. And for older adults, even leisurely physical activity offers health benefits.

There are other ways to fight back. While some things some such as age and heredity can’t be changed, others can. The simple things like lowering blood pressure and high cholesterol reduce risk factors. Some autopsy studies show that 80% of all who had Alzheimer’s also had coronary disease. Those autopsy studies also show that the plaques and tangles in the brain have a much higher risk of leading to Alzheimer’s when there is vascular disease.

Current evidence suggests that heart-healthy eating may also help protect the brain. Heart-healthy eating includes limiting the intake of sugar and saturated fats and making sure to eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. No one diet has proven best. Two diets that have been studied and may be beneficial to lowering the risk of Alzheimer’s are the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet and the Mediterranean diet.

  • The DASH diet emphasizes vegetables, fruits, fat-free or low-fat dairy products, whole grains, fish, poultry, beans, seeds, nuts and vegetable oils. The DASH diet limits sodium, sweets, sugary beverages and red meats.
  • A Mediterranean diet includes relatively little red meat. It emphasizes whole grains, fruits and vegetables, fish and shellfish, and healthy fats like nuts and olive oil.

Leading a healthy social life and challenging the brain regularly also appear to be major pluses. Getting involved with community activities and seeking mental stimulation matter. Exercise and dietary improvement can still make a difference when cognitive impairment has already begun.

Rowan’s next two races are right around the corner. The Shiloh Missions 5K on July 3 and the Greenway 5K on July 17 are next up. Look for them and other events at