The Benefits of Exercise on Brain Health

In this guest post, Susan Kohlhaas, Director of Research at Alzheimer's Research UK, explains why the things that are good for your heart are also good for your brain - and why it's never too early or late in life to start giving your brain some love.

What's good for your heart is good for your brain

Staying active and making healthy food choices are important for our hearts but few people realise that doing the very same things can help protect our brains too.

There are so many incredible brain facts out there. For example, our brain contains around 400 miles of blood vessels. It also uses 20% of all our energy.

We're learning more about how this amazing organ works all the time, and just as we can protect other areas of our health, we can take steps to keep our brains healthy too. Doing so could help reduce our risk of developing the diseases that cause dementia.

If that's news to you, you're not alone.

Just one in three people in the UK realise it's possible to influence their dementia risk and one of the most important things we can do is be kind to our hearts.

The heart - brain connection

The word dementia refers to a group of symptoms such as memory problems, mood changes and communication difficulties. It's not a normal part of ageing. Dementia is caused by brain diseases, including Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia.

Our individual risk is shaped by a whole mix of different factors. Some of these, like our age and our genes, we can't change. That's why people from all walks of life sadly go on to develop the condition. But research shows that some cases are linked to factors we can influence ourselves.

These studies point to the importance of the things that we can do to reduce our risk of heart disease - including being physically active and eating well. As the heart pumps vital blood supply to the brain, these factors also play a central role in protecting our brains. So, they can help stack the odds against dementia too.

The latest research

By tapping into research studies that run for years, or even decades, scientists are learning more and more about how the things that we do at different stages of our lives shape our brain health.

For example, an important study in Norway that tracked nearly 30,000 participants for 25 years, found that exercising more between the age of 30 and 60 was linked with a lower risk of dementia.

There's also increasing evidence that controlling blood pressure, particularly in midlife, could help protect our brains as we age.

And earlier this year, researchers from the UK and France found that having two or more long-term illnesses including heart disease, diabetes and stroke is linked with an increased risk of dementia later in life.

There are lots more fascinating studies going on right now. They're answering questions like whether eating a Mediterranean-style diet, rich in fruit, veg, fish and nuts may also help to protect our brains.

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Never too early or late

What's clear is that our brain health is shaped by a range of different factors throughout life, and it's never too early or late to take positive steps.

Several studies suggest that because the changes in the brain that ultimately cause dementia begin many years before symptoms appear, looking after our health in our 30s, 40s and 50s is particularly important. This really can make a difference.

Age is the biggest risk factor for dementia, and because life expectancy is increasing here in the UK and globally, we are seeing more people living with this heartbreaking condition.

But the good news is that the incidence of dementia - the rate at which new cases are developing each year - is actually falling slightly. Why? We think improvements in the population's heart health is playing a part.

Simple steps to better brain health

Protecting our brains may sound more complicated than looking after other areas of our body that we can see and touch, but it doesn't have to be.

It's about small, sustainable choices that we can build into our lives. Whether aimed at being more physically active or improving diet, your heart - and your brain - will thank you in the years to come.

'Love your heart' is one of Alzheimer's Research UK's three simple rules for better brain health. You can read more here to find out why regularly challenging your brain and keeping connected to others are also important.

Written by Susan Kohlhaas, freelance contributor.

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