Exercising Brain Health
Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease share
many things in common. Both conditions develop slowly over a
number of years. Both tend to strike late in life. And both
are currently incurable.
disease is caused by the gradual death of specific brain
cells that produce the chemical dopamine.
Patients with Parkinson’s are often prescribed medications
that increase the amount or effectiveness of dopamine in the
brain, and these medications can relieve the motor symptoms
associated with the disease.
But, as our science feature about Parkinson’s
disease explains, there’s a tradeoff: these drugs
may cause serious cognitive side effects, including -- in
some people -- devastating behavioral addictions such as gambling
or overeating. Understanding why these side effects occur
in some patients but not others is a major question that must
be answered, so that new treatments can be developed that
avoid these side effects.
In the case of Alzheimer’s
disease, the immediate cause of the disorder is less well
understood. As a result, it has been hard to develop effective
treatments. Right now, the medications commonly used to treat
Alzheimer’s disease can temporarily mask the symptoms,
but don’t address -- or reverse -- the underlying causes
But there is some good news. As our story "Pumping Neurons"
explains, there is mounting evidence that we can all make
some lifestyle choices that greatly reduce our risk of developing
Alzheimer’s. One important area is aerobic exercise:
In addition to promoting heart health and other benefits,
it now appears that people who exercise regularly have reduced
risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Even a relatively modest
amount of exercise a few times a week can have a big impact.
Other data are emerging to show that a healthy diet -- particularly
one low in LDL or “bad” cholesterol and high in
fruits, vegetables, and fatty fish -- can help too. And as
we explained in a previous issue (“Use
it or lose it”), cognitive activity -- anything
that challenges you to think and to learn -- may be a third
factor to help keep the brain strong and healthy.
We all hope that, someday soon, a cure for Alzheimer’s
will be found. In the meantime, the best offense may be a
good defense: Healthy choices for diet, exercise, and cognitive
activity may help many of us increase our odds of facing a
future free of Alzheimer’s.
Catherine E. Myers, Ph.D.
Senior Editor, Memory
Loss & the Brain