Blog Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging

Exercise your body, exercise your brain!

Written by Elyse Murrell, MSW, education and outreach manager of the Alzheimer’s Association, Greater Missouri Chapter

“What can I do to protect myself from Alzheimer’s?” This powerful question is a common one among aging individuals and the loved ones of people who have the disease. According to the Alzheimer’s Association’s latest Facts and Figures, more than five million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s, and more than 20 million people are providing care for those affected. In fact, someone in the U.S. develops the disease every 65 seconds — so the question of reducing risk is an important one.

Of the 10 most common chronic conditions humans experience, Alzheimer’s is the only one that cannot currently be prevented, treated, or even slowed down. However, there is good news! We have seen substantial increases in funding for Alzheimer’s research. In fact, our very own Washington University in St. Louis is the second largest recipient of Alzheimer’s Association research funding in the world. Hope is on the horizon, but this leads to the question “What can I do NOW to prevent Alzheimer’s disease?”

Research indicates that several lifestyle factors impact one’s risk of experiencing cognitive decline. There is a strong correlation between heart and brain health, and those with chronic diseases earlier in life (e.g. heart disease and diabetes) are at an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s. This places some of the power of reducing risk into our own hands.

The four pillars associated with healthy aging are physical health and exercise, diet and nutrition, cognitive activity, and social engagement. In 2014, a two-year study showed that a combination of these protective factors slowed cognitive decline. The research in this arena is ongoing. In fact, the Alzheimer’s Association is taking the lead with the U.S. POINTER study — a two-year lifestyle intervention study that will evaluate the impact of healthy lifestyle factors on the protection of cognitive function. Two of the pillars for healthy aging that people often ask me about is exercise and cognitive activity.


It is no secret that exercise is good for you, but people often wonder and debate how much and what type of exercise is best. When it comes to the brain, research indicates that cardiovascular exercise may directly benefit brain cells due to increased blood flow and oxygen. There is no one type of exercise that is superior, but multiple studies show that it should ideally increase one’s heart rate. In the words of Dr. Eric Lenze at Washington University in St. Louis, “You can walk, but you should walk with a purpose.” This means increasing your speed, adding in some hills, or increasing the time of the activity in order to reap the heart and brain-health benefits.

What you can do:

  • Start small – set attainable goals.
  • Do something you enjoy.
  • Move safely – consult your physician about any health or safety concerns.
  • Make it social too – ask friends to join!
  • Get enough sleep. Research continues to emerge indicating that a lack of deep sleep on a chronic basis could contribute to the development of the amyloid plaques that are part of the pathology of Alzheimer’s disease in the brain.

Cognitive Activity

The brain is a part of the body, just like any other organ. This means we can engage in activities to promote brain stamina and protect against decline just like we can for our hearts, lungs, and other organs. When we engage in activities that challenge our mind, we can actually create and nourish new pathways for connections among brain cells. Ruth, whose husband Rich participated in the Alzheimer’s Association’s Opening Minds through Art (OMA) program earlier this year, has seen the benefits of cognitive activity firsthand. In her own words, “These programs strengthen [Rich’s] self esteem and feeling of independence, which in turns allow him to perform at his optimum level. As our son pointed out, Rich’s art projects improved over the eight week program of OMA. That alone is impressive when you are diagnosed with a terminal illness which slowly robs you of your cognitive and physical abilities.”

Over time, we can actually build up a reserve of synapses in the brain that Dr. Rudolph Tanzi at Harvard University’s School of Medicine likens to building up your retirement funds. We save money so that we can maintain our standard of living in retirement. We should think of cognitive activity as a way to maintain our cognitive functioning as long as possible, before or after a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or another dementia.
What you can do:

  • Read books or articles that challenge or inspire you.
  • Complete puzzles or play games that are challenging for you.
  • Learn a new skill or hobby.
  • Engage in ongoing learning and education.

The key is that the activities are not passive or too easy to complete. They require you to think, analyze, problem solve, or learn something new in order to complete them. Just like a muscle, the brain needs to be challenged in order to have the most benefit from cognitive activity. Start today! It is never too early or too late to benefit from healthy lifestyle changes. Visit the Alzheimer’s Association’s Brain Health page to learn more.

Alzheimer’s is one of the greatest public health threats of the 21st Century, and it is not limited to older adults. This disease touches the lives of millions of Americans on a daily basis. June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month, and there are many ways to get involved and raise awareness! Contact your local chapter today to find out more about how you can help #ENDALZ by calling 800.272.3900 or visit