Exercise Can Help Reduce Risk of Dementia, According to the World Health Organisation


Around 55 million people worldwide are currently living with dementia.  Each year, 10 million new cases are diagnosed and that figure is expected to triple by 2050. Dementia has no cure but the World Health Organisation (WHO) now recommends regular exercise to reduce the risk of developing the disease. It also suggests that physical activity could also help to slow the progression of dementia in those already diagnosed.

What is Dementia?

According to The Alzheimer's Society, dementia is caused by ‘different diseases that affect the brain’. Dementia describes a number of symptoms affecting cognitive function such as memory, concentration, decision making and language amongst others. It’s a degenerative disease often associated with a build-up of protein that reduces and then kills nerve cell function in the brain.

Alzheimer’s is the most common form of the disease in the UK. The second most common is vascular dementia which caused by a lack of blood flow to the brain. Parkinson’s Disease is another form of dementia.

According to the World Health Organisation’s recent guidelines, dementia has 3 stages.  Initially, and during the first 2 stages, a person may become forgetful.  They might start to lose track of time and become unfamiliar with familiar places and faces. They may repeatedly ask questions. Communication can be difficult. 

During stage 3, any previous symptoms will become more serious.  A person may need more physical help with hygiene and they may have trouble walking.  There might also be changes in a person’s personality.

Dementia is a terrifying diagnosis to recieve, but the WHO’s guidelines suggest that there may be something we can all do now (and throughout our lives) to reduce the risk of developing the disease. 

How Can Exercise Reduce the Risk of Dementia?

The Harvard Health Blog writes that what clogs the arteries in the heart also clogs the arteries in the brain. Clearing tubular protein builds-ups in the brain is reliant on a good flow of blood and exercise does just that: it increases blood flow travelling throughout the body.  

A number of other studies appear to agree with the WHO’s guidelines suggesting that a link exists between physical fitness and dementia prevention.

Runners’ World wrote about one Swedish study in which 800 women over a 44-year period were asked about their mental and physical activity.

On the physical side of things, the women were divided into two groups depending on the amount of exercise each person said they were getting.  One group was ‘active’ and the other ‘sedentary’. The website wrote that 17% of women in the latter group went on to develop some form of dementia. Women who’d been mentally active were 34% less likely to be diagnosed with dementia than those who weren’t. Interestingly, those who were physically active were found to be 52% less likely to develop dementia.

Physical activity could, therefore, be a key component in preventing people from developing vascular dementia, the second most common form of the disease.

Another study published earlier this year, suggests that during exercise the body releases a hormone that could prevent Alzheimer's disease. The Telegraph wrote that Irisin, released during a workout, is ‘depleted in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s’. The study also injected live mice with the same protein build-up present in the brains of Alzheimer patients. The injected mice were then made to swim regularly for 5-weeks but after the study showed no sign of being affected with the disease.

The studies are interesting and the results are hopeful as is the WHO’s recommendations. Wouldn’t it be lovely to think that something as simple as physical activity could help prevent that terrible diagnosis further down the line?  But whilst experts agree that exercise is important, a number have raised reservations at the WHO’s guidelines saying there isn’t enough of a link between exercise and dementia prevention yet.

At the moment there’s no definitive evidence that exercise reduces the risk of dementia.  There are a number of factors that can play a role in whether or not a person develops the disease. Certainly, even those individuals with intense physical and mental regimes have found themselves on the wrong end of a diagnosis. The British tabloid press has been somewhat irresponsible on the subject with a number of its headlines touting exercise as a kind of preventative cure — it isn’t.

There may not be proof yet but that doesn’t mean that exercise can’t or won’t help. You can’t look at the body in isolation. We already know that exercise is important in maintaining cardiovascular health, and we’re beginning to realise, too, that a workout can also benefit mental health.  Exercise doesn’t need to cost anything.  It doesn’t have any nasty side-effects and you can start right now, so given what we know about the importance of physical activity, therefore, it makes sense to follow the advice on the Harvard Health Blog: that what’s good for the heart is most likely good for the brain.

The brain is an impressive organ in the body but it’s vulnerable not only to dementia but to mental illnesses like depression and anxiety.  50 million people suffer from dementia but it’s believed that up to 300 million people suffer from depression making it the world’s leading cause of disability.  We believe in the power of exercise to help some people manage mild forms of anxiety and depression but there’s so much more that organisations like the Mental Health Foundation do to help improve the lives of those suffering from mental illness.  That’s why £1 from every pair of EarHugz sold is donated to the Mental Health Foundation.  EarHugz are sweat-proof headphone covers that wick moisture away from the cushions of your headphones keeping them looking and smelling fresh.


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If you thought that regular exercise could help reduce your risk of dementia, would it make you more likely to workout? Drop us a comment below and let us know.

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