Why exercise is the best medicine for your brain

Given time, any brain can succumb to dementia — memories fade, thoughts scatter, basic abilities wither on the vine. Brains don’t come with lifetime guarantees, but there is one major step you can take to protect yourself from Alzheimer’s or other causes of mental decline: exercise your body.

Nothing protects the brain quite like regular exercise, says Jennifer Heisz, a cognitive neuroscientist at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada. Not crossword puzzles, not supplements, not prescription medications. Exercise seems to beat them all, reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease or cognitive decline by about 35% to 45%, according to the latest evidence.

“It’s a strong message,” Heisz says. “We have control over our dementia risk.”

Here’s another way to look at it: People who don’t exercise as they age are taking a gamble. In a study of more than 1,600 older adults published in January in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, Heisz and colleagues found that a lack of exercise was about as risky as having certain types of genes that raise the risk of Alzheimer’s. Genes are forever, but exercise habits can change.

Heisz’s study found that exercise didn’t seem to prevent dementia in older people who carried the types of genes that make Alzheimer’s more likely. She says that’s probably because disease-related brain damage had already progressed past the point of no return. But if they had exercised in their 30s or 40s, she adds, some of them might have been able to delay or perhaps even prevent the disease. “It seems to be easier to prevent the damage than to reverse it,” she says.

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