Women, Exercise, and Alzheimer’s

While much is still unknown about Alzheimer’s disease, one thing is certain: it affects women far more than men. Consider these statistics:

  • Of the 5.4 million Americans with Alzheimer’s disease (AD), nearly 2/3 are women.
  • After age 65, a woman’s chances of developing AD are about 1 in 6, while a man’s chances are 1 in 11.
  • After age 60, women are nearly twice as likely to develop AD as breast cancer in their lifetime.

Scientists don’t yet fully understand why women are more prone to AD than men. A partial explanation may be the fact that advancing age is the biggest risk factor and women generally live longer than men. Another possibility is that the best known genetic risk factor (the APOE-e4 genotype) may interact in some way with the female hormone, estrogen.

Although the causes of AD are uncertain and the cure is still unknown, the most important question for most women is, “Is there anything I can do to prevent it?”

Lowering Risk

While there is no guaranteed way to keep from getting Alzheimer’s disease, experts now point people toward the lifestyle practices that can reduce some known risk factors for the disease. Among these risk factors are three diseases known to damage blood vessels: high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol. Because these diseases damage the vessels in the brain, they increase the risk for Alzheimer’s. This is not just a theory. Autopsy studies show that 80% of those with AD also have cardiovascular disease.

Happily, there is one thing every woman can do to help prevent the vessel-damaging diseases that increase her risk for AD. That one thing is exercise.

Here’s what exercise accomplishes:

  • Increases blood flow to the brain, improving the supply of oxygen and nutrients to brain cells
  • Burns calories, helping with weight control (important because people who are overweight or obese in mid-life are at greater risk for AD later)
  • Stimulates the release of growth factors that promote new blood vessel growth within the brain
  • Increases “good” cholesterol, lowering risk for cardiovascular disease
  • Reduces stress, a known contributor to cognitive impairment
  • Lowers blood pressure
  • Helps prevent type 2 diabetes, a potent risk factor for AD

Exercise even appears to benefit those who already have AD. In a six-year study of people with early-stage AD, those who were not physically fit had four times more brain shrinkage than those who were fit. This suggests that exercise may slow the progression of AD—something no medication can yet accomplish.

Move Your Body, Save Your Brain!

The Alzheimer’s Association recommends regular moderate intensity aerobic exercise. Aerobic means the activity increases your heart rate and causes you to move your large muscles. “Moderate intensity” activities, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), include:

  • Walking briskly
  • Water aerobics
  • Bicycling slower than 10 miles per hour
  • Tennis (doubles)
  • General gardening

If you are not currently exercising, start slowly and build up to at least 150 minutes a week (30 minutes, five days a week, for example). It’s a good idea to consult your doctor before you begin, especially if you have any medical condition. Your doctor can help you choose the type of physical activity that is right for you.

Those already doing moderate intensity exercise may want to step up to more calorie-torching (vigorous intensity) activities such as swimming laps, singles tennis, jogging, or Jazzercise (a fusion of cardio, resistance training, Pilates, yoga, kickboxing, and modern dance).

If the benefits of exercise for your body and brain aren’t enough to motivate you, consider one more: exercise makes you happy. The (good) stress of exercise triggers the release of several natural neurochemicals that reduce anxiety, boost mood, and fight depression.

There is, it seems, no downside to exercising.

So, let’s get moving!

Debbie Barr, MA, is a master certified health education specialist (MCHES) and coauthor of Keeping Love Alive as Memories Fade: The 5 Love Languages and the Alzheimer’s Journey (Northfield, 2016). She has been torching calories at Winston-Salem Jazzercise for more than ten years.