Walking Can Lower Your Risk of Alzheimer's Disease

For years, we've been told there's little we can do to prevent Alzheimer's Disease, but new research shows we can help protect our brains as we age.

In fact, a recent study found that walking is one of the best ways to slow down the progression of Alzheimer's Disease if you already have it – or to cut your risk, if you don't.

"Walking just five miles a week can reduce the chances of the disease getting worse in people who already have Alzheimer's Disease," explains neurologist Marvin Zelkowitz, M.D. "And to reduce the chance of developing Alzheimer's Disease in the future, healthy people should walk at least six miles a week."

As it turns out, regular walking strengthens the brain's memory circuits and can help reduce memory loss over time.

Other ways to keep cognitive abilities sharp include reading the newspaper every day, learning a second language, taking up a new hobby, or learning a new skill.

"The greater the novelty and challenge of the activity, the larger the deposit in the brain's reserves," he added.

In other words, people who continue learning new things throughout life and challenge their brains are less likely to develop Alzheimer's Disease and dementia.

"So if you have never learned a second language, try it. If you have never learned to read music, or paint, or play an instrument, try it," Dr. Zelkowitz concluded.

Understanding Alzheimer's Disease

As many as 5 million Americans have Alzheimer's Disease, an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills, and eventually the ability to carry out the simplest tasks. Symptoms usually first appear after age 60.

Alzheimer's Disease begins slowly, involving the parts of the brain that control thought, memory and language. Patients may have trouble remembering things that recently happened or names of people they know. Over time, they may not recognize family members or have trouble speaking, reading, writing or performing daily activities. Eventually, they need total care.

Alzheimer's starts when tangles begin to develop deep in the brain. As more and more plaques and tangles form in particular brain areas, healthy neurons begin to work less efficiently. They lose their ability to function and communicate with each other, and eventually they die. As the death of neurons increases, affected brain regions begin to shrink. By the final stage of Alzheimer's Disease, damage is widespread and brain tissue has shrunk significantly.

Risk Factors

Risk factors include advancing age, lack of physical exercise, smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, poorly controlled diabetes and family history of the disease. Women may be more likely to develop Alzheimer's, partly because they live longer than men.

Factors that may reduce your risk of Alzheimer's Disease include higher levels of formal education, a stimulating job, mentally challenging leisure activities such as reading, playing games or playing a musical instrument, and frequent social interactions.

If you or a loved one starts to show early signs of dementia or Alzheimer's Disease, see your doctor right away. The earlier the diagnosis, the better the chance of a longer, productive life.

If you're interested in starting a walking program, Ingalls Health System offers mall-walking programs at three area malls with comfortable, climate-controlled conditions: Orland Square Mall in Orland Park, Lincoln Mall in Matteson, and River Oaks Center in Calumet City. Programs feature blood pressure screenings, health talks and a free T-shirt for joining. For more information, call Ingalls Care Connection at 1.800.221.CARE(2273).

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