There is one way women can prevent the onset of dementia.
Recent research, published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, tracked 387 Australian women over 20 years and found regular exercise in middle age is the most important lifestyle change a woman can make to prevent cognitive decline in later years.
“I have changed my behaviour through this research and am I am focusing less on my weight and more on increasing my daily activity,” lead author of the landmark study Associate Professor Cassandra Szoeke told the Australian Financial Review.
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The study’s participants were aged 45-55 when the research began in 1992. Those women who exercised frequently, had normal blood pressure, and showed high levels of good cholesterol displayed better recall in memory tests throughout the study.
“The evolution of cognitive decline is slow and steady, so we needed to study people over a long time period,” Szoeke said in an article from the University of Melbourne. “We used a verbal memory test because that’s one of the first things to decline when you develop Alzheimer’s disease.”
Previously, researchers have speculated that some cases of dementia are linked to a modifiable risk factor – such as diet or exercise, as opposed to genetics. But this is one of few studies to identify the effect of a lifestyle factor, such as exercise, on cognitive decline over such a long duration.
This research is important, partly because of the prevalence of dementia, but also because of that nature of the condition. Once dementia onset begins, it is impossible to reverse.
“Unlike muscle and vessels, which have the capacity to remodel and reverse atrophy and damage, neuronal cells are not nearly so versatile with damage and cell loss is irreversible,” Szoeke said.
Importantly, the type of exercise did not matter – bush walking or body building both helped reduce the rate of cognitive decline. The only discerning factor was the age women started; the earlier the better, for your heart, kidney’s and brain.
“The message from our study is very simple,” Szoeke said. “Do more physical activity, it doesn’t matter what, just move more and more often. It helps your heart, your body and prevents obesity and diabetes and now we know it can help your brain.”
This is important information as two thirds of all dementia cases occur in women. One in ten people over 65 have dementia, and women over 65 are the group at greatest risk.
But, despite the figures, dementia is not a ‘normal’ part of ageing.
“More than half of all Australians think that dementia is a normal part of ageing, and it’s not,” publishing icon and Alzheimer’s campaigner Ita Buttrose told ABC’s 7:30 Report. “There’s a big difference between forgetting where you might have put your keys and forgetting your own name, or how to get home when you’re out somewhere.”