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Alzheimer's and Parkinson's
Small Steps to Prevent Big Diseases

Intense cardio is one way to fight back.
Intense cardio is one way to fight back.

Americans like to fix things. When something breaks, we're really good at figuring out how to get it working again. That's especially true with our health. Have a heart attack? If you live, doctors can perform bypasses with incredible skill. Cholesterol too high? There are several drugs that can bring it down to a reasonable level. Enormous time, effort and resources are dedicated to fixing what's gone wrong.

That approach has saved millions of lives. But what about diseases that have limited treatments? For some conditions, prevention is the only real option.

Parkinson's and Alzheimer's are a couple examples. Once somebody develops the signature symptom of tremors or shaking in Parkinson's, the disease may have already destroyed half of the brain's dopamine-producing neurons. If you're diagnosed with Alzheimer's, there is no cure for the disease or way to stop it's progression. There are simply ways to treat the symptoms.

The best way to deal with the problem is prevention. Researchers have identified two things you can do that can significantly delay the onset of more serious symptoms.

Keep your cholesterol in check if you're worried about Alzheimers. When people hear the word cholesterol, they immediately think its something terrible. In fact, it's an essential structural component of our cells. Our bodies make it, because we need it. The problems start when we have too much.

When you have high cholesterol, it clogs up blood vessels. Poor blood flow is now believed to be one of the contributing factors that lead to Alzheimer's plaques in the brain. An LDL Cholesterol level over 250 may triple your risk of Alzheimer's. But you can't rely on drugs that lower your cholesterol to help.

In an effort to expand the market for cholesterol lowering medications, drug companies conducted tests to see if statins might help fight Alzheimers. Of course if they had, you'd be seeing the ads for it right now. Only cholesterol that was already low or lowered through a healthier diet and exercise seemed to provide benefit.

Cholesterol

Start high intensity exercises if you're worried about Parkinson's. Researchers recruited 128 men and women who were diagnosed with Parkinson's within the previous five years. None of the subjects exercised regularly or took any medications to treat the disease. They were then randomly divided into three groups.

  • There was a control group that went about their lives as normal.
  • A moderate exercise group that walked gently on a treadmill for 30 minutes, four times a week, while keeping their heart rate at between 60 and 65 percent of their maximum.
  • A high intensity exercise group that also exercised for 30 minutes, four times a week, but while keeping their heart rate at between 80 and 85 percent of their maximum.

The first month the subjects were monitored and given instructions on what to do. After that, they continued on their own, using heart rate monitors to verify what they were doing.

At the end of six months, all the subjects were given follow-up tests. Researchers were looking for changes in the Unified Parkinson’s Disease Rating Scale motor score.

There was little surprise the people in the non-exercising control group declined by an average of 3 points. The people in the moderate group did better, but they too experienced declines averaging 2 points. The surprise were the results from the intensely exercising group. They experienced almost no decline.

Doctors aren't sure why there was a difference, but they have a theory. They think that the increased blood flow to the brain, helped the intense exercisers bodies fight back against the disease.

Alzheimer's

Here's the thing about prevention. By keeping your cholesterol in check and engaging in high intensity exercises, you're doing more than just delaying or reducing your chances of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. You're also reducing and delaying much more.

You'll be less likely to experience a heart attack, stroke or cancer. Because you'll be stronger, you'll be able to be more active in your daily life. You won't have to stop doing things, just because you're older. You won't just live longer, you'll have a better quality of life.

It looks like Benjamin Franklin got it right when he said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

You can read the abstract from the Parkinson's trial here: Effect of High-Intensity Treadmill Exercise on Motor Symptoms in Patients With De Novo Parkinson Disease A Phase 2 Randomized Clinical Trial


UPDATE: 11/12/2018

In 1960, more than 440,000 students took something called the “Project Talent” test. After the successful launch of the Soviet Union's satellite Sputnik, the United States government felt that Americans were falling behind in the space race. So the government paid to test and identify students with aptitudes in engineering and science.

The test took two and a half days to administer and covered a wide range of topics from general knowledge, plans for the future, current health, home life and personality questions. Now nearly 60 years later, more than 85,000 of those former test-takers have been contacted and re-interviewed.

Researchers are taking the test results and comparing how well students did then, and seeing if there is any relationship to their health today. Specifically in relation to Alzheimer's and dementia.

Turns out, male students who were in the lower-scoring half are 17 percent more likely to develop dementia in later life and female students are 16 percent more likely.

The implications of these findings are significant. If researchers can identify people who are at risk, they could potentially suggest ways to reduce the odds. The three things we know for sure are to (1) keep learning new things, (2) get regular exercise and (3) eat plenty of vegetables. We'll keep you updated as we learn more.

Click Here for a copy of the study: Adolescent Cognitive Aptitudes and Later-in-Life Alzheimer Disease and Related Disorders


UPDATE: 7/30/2019

Associations of Physical Activity and β-Amyloid With Longitudinal Cognition and Neurodegeneration in Clinically Normal Older Adults - JAMA Neurology - July 16, 2019

Jennifer S. Rabin, PhD1,2; Hannah Klein, BSc3; Dylan R. Kirn, MPH3,4; et al Aaron P. Schultz, PhD3,5; Hyun-Sik Yang, MD3,4; Olivia Hampton, BSc3; Shu Jiang, PhD3; Rachel F. Buckley, PhD3,4,6,7; Anand Viswanathan, MD, PhD8; Trey Hedden, PhD9; Jeremy Pruzin, MD3; Wai-Ying Wendy Yau, MD3; Edmarie Guzmán-Vélez, PhD1; Yakeel T. Quiroz, PhD1,3; Michael Properzi, BEng, BCompSc3; Gad A. Marshall, MD3,4; Dorene M. Rentz, PsyD3,4; Keith A. Johnson, MD3,4,5,10; Reisa A. Sperling, MD3,4,5; Jasmeer P. Chhatwal, MD, PhD3,4

Researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital published a paper in JAMA Neurology on the beneficial effects of exercise. The routines of 182 adults were studied in a clinical setting. Researchers found that people who engaged in 8,900 steps a day, slowed the rate of brain tissue loss and cognitive decline. It's one of the first studies that showed higher levels of exercise offer protection against Alzheimer's.

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9/22/2018
Updated 11/12/2018
Updated 7/30/2019