Not long ago, I read a news headline I never thought I’d see in my lifetime. It said, “Drug Companies ‘Giving Up’ on Alzheimer’s treatment.”
Alzheimer’s disease has been the holy grail of brain diseases for Big Pharma—irreversible, untreatable, and devastating, the company that created an effective treatment stood poised to charge any amount of money they wanted for it. The fact that pharma giants like Pfizer were throwing in the towel and turning their back on the almost infinite money that could be made from a treatment made several things crystal clear.
It underscored just how very little we know about the brain in general and about Alzheimer’s in particular.
It underlined what I’ve been saying for years—that we’re coming at the problem of Alzheimer’s all wrong. Science has assumed—even in the face of evidence to the contrary—that Alzheimer’s symptoms are caused by the beta-amyloid plaques that build up in Alzheimer’s brains. But just because two things occur together doesn’t mean that one causes the other. These plaques also occur in other situations such as sleep deprivation. Nevertheless, this is what Alzheimer’s treatment has focused on.
The evidence that this is just a symptom rather than a cause is mounting. New research points to various other factors at play, such as inflammation and insulin resistance. Viral infections may also play a role. One thing is becoming very clear: beta-amyloid plaque is the wrong thing to focus on. And the fact that Big Pharma is throwing in the towel rather than looking in another direction just highlights what we already know:
It's not about your health. If it was, they’d be looking for the real cause.
It also underscores one very important fact: we can’t sit around waiting for a miracle cure from Big Pharma. Instead of focusing on treatment after the fact, we need to focus on prevention. And a new study funded by the National Institute of Aging shows that this might be easier than you imagined.
Dance like no one’s watching
This wasn’t a huge study, but at nearly 900 people it was large enough. And it was an incredibly long study. Where many last only two to five years, this one followed a group of people for three whole decades. This gives a much broader picture than a shorter-term study.
Participants filled out standard questionnaires asking a variety of lifestyle questions, including levels and types of physical activity. They had MRI scans of their brains. They had tests to assess whether they were suffering from any type of cognitive impairment—memory problems and the like. They kept logs of their actual physical activities and caloric output each week. And the findings were unequivocal.
People who were physically active had bigger, healthier brains. Just a small increase in physical activity translated to more brain tissue—particularly in the areas most affected by Alzheimer’s. Now, the average age of participants was 78 when the study ended. We’re not talking about a grueling gym routine. We’re talking about going for a walk. Or dancing. Or even gardening. The most important factor was whether the activity was regular. Something done on a routine basis. The study found that simple activities, done on a routine basis, actually cut the risk of Alzheimer’s in half.
That’s pretty amazing.
And even more surprising, regular activity also increased the brain volume of people already suffering from mild cognitive impairment. It’s too early to say for sure, but this suggests that, started early enough, regular physical activity could possibly slow or even halt the progression of dementia.
Do what you love
It’s a fascinating study, worth reading for those who aren’t afraid of dipping into a little “medical-ese.” For those who get a headache from medicalese, the takeaway is this: to reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s, one of the most important things you can do is simply get up and get moving. You don’t have to become a gym rat—the more calories you burn the bigger the benefit, but even moderate activity has an effect.
What’s vital is to get moving every day. And the key to staying active is picking activities that you’ll actually do. It’s all well and good to buy a stationary bike, or sign up for the gym. But if you hate these activities and will really only force yourself to do them twice a month, you’re probably better off doing something else.
So do what you love. As the saying goes, what’s the best exercise program? The one that you’ll actually stick to. If you like to swim, go for a swim each day. If you love to dance, take a dance class. Get out on the tennis court. Rake the yard. Dig in the flower beds. And if nothing else, simply go for a walk each day. Imagine: while you’re growing roses, you could also be growing your brain.