The Best Dementia Prevention? A Workout for Your Brain

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A senior man relaxing in water by edge of a swimming pool

You know that exercise is good for your body, but how about for your brain? According to The Alzheimer’s Association, just 30 minutes of exercise five times a week helps lower the risk of dementia. The trick is knowing which kind of exercise will provide the most brain-enhancing benefits.

“We personalize our medications, and I would suggest we should be personalizing how we exercise to optimize our health,” says Jonathan S. Stamler, MD, President, Harrington Discovery Institute, Robert S. and Sylvia K. Reitman Family Foundation Distinguished Professor of Cardiovascular Innovation, and Professor of Medicine and of Biochemistry at University Hospitals and Case Western Reserve University.

Stamler and his team are designing a fitness wearable that will provide real-time feedback to help people exercise in a way that improves their cognitive health, in addition to their physical health.

Nitric Oxide and the Brain

Most of the fitness wearables currently available, including the Apple Watch, measure heart rate and other fitness indicators. However, there is more to brain health than these popular devices can measure.

In particular, nitric oxide facilitates blood flow and oxygen delivery to organs like the brain. There is a growing school of thought that impairments in blood flow may contribute to, or even cause, age-related dementia. “It's not about how much oxygen you carry in your blood; it's about how much oxygen is actually delivered to your tissues and organs,” Dr. Stamler says.

People living with Alzheimer’s disease have low levels of nitric oxide, meaning that organs like the brain are not receiving enough oxygen. Dr. Stamler’s team focuses on the tiny microvessels in the brain that supply blood to keep vital tissue nourished. Nitric oxide helps open up these vessels, which increases blood flow and delivers more oxygen to organs, including the brain.

And what increases nitric oxide? You guessed it – exercise. A consistent exercise routine is the best way to improve nitric oxide levels and blood flow to the brain.

A Smarter Workout

The new fitness device in development by Dr. Stamler and his team measures the level of nitric oxide in the blood. It’s also the first device to measure nitric oxide without the use of a blood test, instead relying on the sensors and AI of fitness wearables.

Because the type and intensity of exercise that boosts nitric oxide levels can vary from person to person, the hope is that the wearable will enable people to customize their exercise routines and waste less time on what doesn’t maximize benefits for the brain.

Dr. Stamler acknowledges that Alzheimer’s is a complex disease, with many causes. While certainly not a cure-all, exercise is a powerful tool to help prevent and slow the progression of the disease. “If we can do this right, my hope is that everyone over 60 years old and at risk for dementia will be customizing their exercise to promote a longer, healthier and better life,” says Dr. Stamler.

Related Links

The specialized brain health and memory team at University Hospitals Neurology Institute, offers comprehensive treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.

Learn more about Harrington Discovery Institute at University Hospitals.

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