Can Exercise Really Prevent Dementia in Later Life?

While many people might forget things in their daily lives and think little of it, it can be easy to overlook the overall health of our mind and body, until it's too late. It is believed that more than 6.5 million Americans are currently living with Alzheimer's. But, what if there were changes we could make to our lives now, that would help later in life?

A neuroscientist has gone viral on TikTok after encouraging people to exercise several times a week to help prevent the onset of Alzheimer's and dementia in later life, earning him lots of fascinated viewers who follow his videos on the subject.

The Alzheimer's Association estimates one in nine Americans aged 65 and over have Alzheimer's disease, and 73 percent of them are over the age of 75. Robert Love, a neuroscientist and researcher, has been witness to the effect this disease can have after seeing the fading of his grandparents when they developed dementia a few years ago.

In 2019, Love's own parents began showing early signals that they too were losing their memories, so he began researching ways to prevent dementia.

Can exercise really help prevent dementia?
Robert W.B. Love (left) and a stock image of a man stretching (right). Many experts have said that frequent exercise is one way to prevent dementia. Getty Images/olegbreslavtsev

Can You Prevent Dementia?

Love aims to spread awareness on what people can do right now to help strengthen their cognitive ability in their senior years. He frequently shares videos and research findings on his TikTok account, @robertwblove.

Love, who believes physical exercise from a younger age can prevent the brain from deteriorating in later life, told Newsweek: "Exercise is medicine for the brain. Exercise is also great for the heart, immune function, energy, and mood. What is good for your heart is good for your brain, and what is good for your overall health is good for your brain too!

"People who exercise regularly have better memories than those who don't exercise, so this helps protect against Alzheimer's disease by helping prevent memory loss.

"Exercise also increases the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which aids the growth and survival of brain cells. BDNF facilitates the repair of brain cells and the growth of new ones. Even if someone already has a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease, they can still exercise to help their memory."

What Exercise Is Best To Prevent Dementia?

So, what are the best kinds of exercise if you're serious about improving your brain's health for the years to come? Love encourages people to do aerobic exercise between three and five times a week for at least 30 minutes, as well as exercise that strengthens the legs and hands.

"Leg strength is associated with a healthy brain and protection against memory loss. Hand strength helps protect against falls and accidents. Ideally, a person would engage in enjoyable aerobic activity several times a week. It needs to be enjoyable, otherwise, it's unlikely that it will be sustainable. This is supposed to be a life-long habit, so if it's going to become part of someone's everyday life, they need to enjoy it.

"A person should also engage in strength training three times a week. Strength training also helps prevent the loss of muscle mass and prevent frailty."

Stock Photo of A Fitness Class
A stock image showing a group of elderly people at a fitness class with an instructor. Even if someone already has a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease, they can still exercise to help their memory, according to neuroscientist Robert Love. iStock / Getty Images

Aerobic exercises will raise a person's heart rate and increase oxygen flow around the body. Examples include walking, swimming, running, or cycling. Strength training could be in the form of squats, lunges, push-ups, planks, or lifting weights.

A study that tested 324 female twins over 10 years found that twins with better leg strength also had a better memory than their counterparts and had a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. The study, titled Kicking Back Cognitive Ageing: Leg Power Predicts Cognitive Ageing After Ten Years in Older Female Twins, was first published online in 2015, before subsequently being published in the Gerontology journal in 2016.

The research concluded that despite the "common genetics and early life environment shared by twins," a difference in leg strength found improved cognitive capability over time.

Can Mental Health Conditions Lead To Dementia?

In his search for the best ways of preventing memory loss, Love has considered the effect that a person's mental state has on their cognitive ability. "Depression is a major risk factor for Alzheimer's disease. A history of depression increases the risk of Alzheimer's later in life. But exercise improves mood and reduces symptoms of depression."

Exercising to help prevent dementia
A stock image of a woman running. Doing more physical exercise can be a beneficial way of helping reduce the risk of dementia in later life. Ivanko_Brnjakovic/Getty Images

Love isn't the only expert who encourages exercise for its impact on a person's memory.

Newsweek spoke to Dr. Karen Sullivan, a neuropsychologist specializing in Alzheimer's and dementia, about the benefits of exercise. "There is plenty of analysis that shows an association between physical activity and decreased risk of dementia, Alzheimer's disease, and vascular dementia. Recent data suggests that the dementia-reducing effects of exercise are the highest when someone is moving from extreme sedentariness to some physical activity.

"Vascular dementia is most commonly the result of poor circulation and inadequate blood flow over decades, which can be improved by doing physical activity."

In addition to exercise, Sullivan encourages her patients to decrease their stress levels, eat anti-inflammatory foods, and ensure cognitive stimulation regularly.

Experts also warn of the dangers of believing that cognitive deterioration will be prevented by exercise as it may not work for everyone. Dr. Robert Tarzwell, a psychiatrist and nuclear medicine specialist, believes there is a multitude of factors that people should be aware of.

Tarzwell told Newsweek: "Exercise, while crucially important, isn't the whole story. Essentially, if it's good for your heart, then it's good for your brain, so yes by all means exercise. However, do you know what your blood pressure is? Do you know what your cholesterol profile is? How much alcohol are you drinking? Do you smoke?

"Exercise is helpful with some of these, but it's no magic bullet against all of the risk factors, and they must be dealt with on their own terms. There are also entire areas of life which have been linked with better cognitive outcomes, such as the amount of lifetime spent in education, doing meaningful and engaging work, socioeconomic status."

While Tarzwell acknowledged that some physical exercise can certainly be beneficial, he noted that there are plenty of sports that could prove more troubling. He said, "If your exercise involves full contact sports, particularly to the head, like hockey, rugby, martial arts, or football, you might actually be moving further backward than forwards."