Dementia And Physical Activity

What is dementia?

Dementia is a general term for a syndrome that can be caused by several medical conditions. It is characterized by a decline of cognitive functions, such as memory, thinking, comprehension, and language skills, that causes significant impairment in daily activities. It is often accompanied by behavior and mood changes, poor emotional control, and lack of motivation. There are many conditions that can cause dementia, the most common one being Alzheimer’s disease, followed by vascular dementia.1,2

Dementia is more common in older adults - approximately 30% of all people aged 85 years or older may have some type of dementia - and it is one of the main causes of disability among the elderly population worldwide. Even though dementia is more common in older adults, it is not considered a normal part of the aging process. Its severity varies from mild, when the symptoms are starting, to severe, when there might be a significant dependency on others to perform everyday activities.1,2

Symptoms of dementia

The symptoms of dementia vary largely across individuals, depending on the cause of dementia, the general health state, and the baseline cognitive functioning of the person experiencing the symptoms. It includes but is not limited to-1,2

  • Memory impairment, which can start with, for example, losing track of time, forgetting to pay bills, repeating questions, having difficulty remembering appointments, using uncommon words to refer to common objects, and can progress to more severe symptoms, such as becoming unaware of time and place, being lost in familiar places, forgetting recent events, not recognizing family members or friends, and forgetting old memories;
  • Communication difficulties, which may include impairment in speaking, understanding, expressing thoughts, reading, or writing;
  • Behavior changes, such as acting impulsively and more severely, aggression;
  • Increased dependency to perform daily activities and self-care;
  • Difficulty walking, impaired balance, and movement disturbances;
  • Hallucinations, delusions, or paranoia. 

The symptoms usually increase in severity, starting with mild symptoms and evolving to more severe symptoms. Therefore, if you or someone you know is experiencing memory or thinking difficulties, share your concerns with your doctor as soon as possible. If the cause is dementia, an early diagnosis can significantly improve their quality of life.

Staying active can reduce the risk of dementia

Studies have shown that being physically active might decrease the risk of developing dementia and cognitive decline. In fact, it is estimated that around 3% of all dementia cases around the world can be prevented by increasing levels of physical exercise. There are many mechanisms involved in the effects of physical activity on the central nervous system, including neurogenesis, angiogenesis, and neural plasticity. 2-5

Staying physically active can reduce the risk of dementia by improving overall cardiovascular health since cardiovascular risk factors, such as diabetes, obesity, and hypertension, are associated with several brain changes. Additionally, it has been shown that physical activity increases cerebral (brain) blood volume.2,3

Exercise promotes neurogenesis

Another mechanism by which physical exercise might reduce the risk of dementia is neurogenesis. Neurogenesis is the process by which new neurons are formed in the brain. Physical activity, especially aerobic exercises, has been shown to promote neurogenesis by increasing the levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which stimulates the growth and maintains neuron cells.3,4

Exercise improves cognitive activity

Physical activity may also decrease the risk of dementia by improving cognitive activity, including in people with mild cognitive impairment, who are at a higher risk of developing dementia. It may also improve the cognitive function of people who have already developed dementia.4,5

Conclusion

Dementia is a syndrome that more often affects older adults and can be caused by several medical conditions. It causes impairment of cognitive functions that can have a severe impact on daily activities. Its symptoms include memory impairment, communication difficulties, and behavioral changes, which can lead to a progressively increased dependency to perform daily activities and engage in self-care. If you or someone you know is experiencing any dementia-related symptoms, visit your doctor as soon as possible and share your concerns. Additionally, it is important to note that being physically active can reduce the risk of dementia by several different mechanisms and thus improve overall health and mental well-being. 

References

  1. World Health Organization. Dementia [Internet]. World Health Organization; 2022 [cited 2022 Sept 24]. Available from: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/dementia
  2. Nuzum H, Stickel A, Corona M, Zeller M, Melrose RJ, Wilkins SS. Potential Benefits of Physical Activity in MCI and Dementia. Behav Neurol. 2020 Feb 12;2020:7807856.
  3. Van der Borght K, Kóbor-Nyakas DE, Klauke K, Eggen BJ, Nyakas C, Van der Zee EA, Meerlo P. Physical exercise leads to rapid adaptations in hippocampal vasculature: temporal dynamics and relationship to cell proliferation and neurogenesis. Hippocampus. 2009 Oct;19(10):928-36.
  4. Dominguez LJ, Veronese N, Vernuccio L, Catanese G, Inzerillo F, Salemi G, et al. Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Other Lifestyle Factors in the Prevention of Cognitive Decline and Dementia. Nutrients. 2021 Nov 15;13(11):4080.
  5. Zhao C, Noble JM, Marder K, Hartman JS, Gu Y, Scarmeas N. Dietary Patterns, Physical Activity, Sleep, and Risk for Dementia and Cognitive Decline. Curr Nutr Rep. 2018 Dec;7(4):335-345.

Juliana Lima Constantino

Medical Doctor and Master Student in Epidemiology, University of Groningen, Netherlands

Juliana completed her studies in Medicine in Brazil in 2019, during which she studied a year abroad in The Netherlands at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and took a Medical Elective in England at Oxford University.

After graduating, she worked as a general practitioner and as an emergency doctor in the frontline against COVID-19 in Brazil. In 2021, she moved to the Netherlands to do her Master in Epidemiology.

She is currently working on her Master Thesis in the Global Health Department, with a focus on maternal and child health. She is passionate about medical writing as it serve as a way of spreading trustworthy knowledge to everyone.

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