Senior smiling while trimming hedges outside

The statistics are frightening. The prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia is expected to double over the next thirty years. With no effective cures or preventative medical treatments on the immediate horizon, behavioural strategies are vital to slow the incidence of this devastating disease.

Laura Middleton, assistant professor of kinesiology, is investigating the impact of exercise and physical activity on slowing cognitive decline. Her studies have supported the premise that any activity that keeps you moving will reduce your risk of memory loss and potentially lessen the chance that you will suffer from dementia as you age.

“You don’t need to be an athlete,” says Middleton. “People who find the thought of intense exercise overwhelming can do smaller things to reduce the risk.”

Even low-intensity walking, or doing housework or gardening can make a difference.

“The most significant finding from one of my recent research projects was that overall physical activity, more than participating in intentional exercise, is strongly associated with lowered risks of cognitive impairment,” she says. “It appears that even low intensity activity can improve brain health.”

In this study, Middleton measured energy spent on daily activity and cognitive abilities in 200 individuals over 70 years old over five years. All had normal cognitive function at the beginning of the study.

One-fifth of the people at the lowest third of physical activity showed deterioration of their cognitive functions. In contrast, people with the highest levels of activity had a 90-per-cent lower rate of cognitive impairment than those who were at the bottom third. Even those in the middle third had 70-per-cent lower risk than those in the lower group.

She also stressed that the earlier you start in life, the greater chance you have at reducing your risk.

“I believe you can improve brain health enough that in some cases you can reduce the risk to such an extent that you actually prevent onset of dementia,” Middleton states.

Middleton is also investigating exercise as a therapeutic strategy to improve symptoms and maximize functional abilities for those already suffering with mild cognitive impairment or early Alzheimer’s disease. Using existing cardiac rehabilitation exercise programs, Middleton will examine whether participation in these programs will be associated with improved physical function, cognitive abilities and mood.