Exercise: Protective and Therapeutic Benefits Against Dementia

Yoga class with senior women lying down on exercise mat, relaxation exercise

The following is a guest post by CCNA researcher, Dr. Laura Middleton.

Over the past decade, failures in drug trials have led many researchers to seek out alternative therapies to slow, if not prevent, the onset of dementia. Their results are encouraging, showing that approximately 35% of dementia cases may be preventable through health and lifestyle choices. Of these, exercise is believed to be the most protective measure against dementia in developed countries, where education rates are high.

People who regularly exercise have an almost 40% lower risk of developing dementia. And older adults living with dementia who take up exercise can improve their daily function and show improvements in walking compared to those who stay inactive. Exercise may also directly improve the brain’s structure and function, as well as improve cognition among older adults with and without dementia.

RESEARCH

What remains to be seen is how we can best harness the benefits of exercise. Is there an ideal type or intensity of exercise? Can we increase the benefits of exercise by combining it with other interventions?

Helping us on our way, two studies within the CCNA are addressing the latter question. Specifically, teams are examining how tailored combinations of exercise, cognitive training, vitamin D, and diet can impact cognition, brain structure and function, as well as mobility among older Canadians at risk of developing dementia. Our hope is that, by combining therapies, we may be able to amplify the benefits.

EXERCISE PROMOTION

As we eagerly await the results of our studies, we already know that exercise carries benefits for people who have, or are at risk of developing, dementia. The question, therefore, becomes: Should we wait to find the perfect dose or combination of interventions before promoting exercise to people who have, or are at risk for, dementia? Most of my colleagues agree with me that we should not.

Complementing our CCNA exercise trials, I believe we must also expand the exercise opportunities that are currently available to people with dementia. I say this because dementia-specific programs are often not frequent or intense enough to meet exercise recommendations. Over the last two years, my research trainees conducted focus groups to better understand the exercise preferences and supports needed among people with dementia.

They found that a critical factor repeatedly listed by people with dementia and their care partners is having access to an encouraging exercise provider who understands and accommodates their unique needs.

While exercise providers from diverse organizations – from city day programs and YMCAs to private health clubs – often include people with dementia in their exercise programs, they typically have no formal education or training to tailor their programs to meet the needs of people with dementia. Rather, their strategies tend to be developed ad hoc. We can and must do better.

NEXT STEPS

For this, we have assembled a team of researchers (including those from 6 CCNA research teams), people with dementia, exercise providers, and other stakeholders to target this issue and identify opportunities. Our vision is to create research-informed tools that will increase the number, quality, and variety of dementia-friendly exercise opportunities available to Canadians with dementia. This will help to ensure that exercise providers who deliver programs have the skills to engage with, and meet the needs of, people with dementia. Ultimately, our goal is for the needs and preferences of people living with dementia to be considered and incorporated into the design, content, and delivery of exercise programs to improve the quality of their experience.

For more information, I encourage you to reach out to me (Laura Middleton) at the Brain and Body Lab at the University of Waterloo by clicking here.

The views and opinions expressed in this guest blog are those of the authors (individual CCNA scientists) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Canadian Consortium on Neurodegeneration in Aging and its partner organizations.