Fitness Sector Can Play a Key Role in Dementia Prevention

As more studies link exercise with reduced risk of developing dementia, the question becomes, “What role can health clubs play in helping their communities stay physically and mentally fit?”

Most people have either been directly affected by dementia or know someone who has. When someone suffers from this cognitive disorder, an often gradual long-term decrease in their ability to think has a severe negative impact on their daily functioning.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 50 million people currently have dementia, and there are 10 million new cases added every year.

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What Causes Dementia?

Dementia is not any one disease, but rather dementia is diagnosed when at least two brain functions—such as memory and judgement—are impaired. There are many causes of dementia, ranging from diseases like Parkinson’s to brain injury. However, the WHO estimates around 60-70% of those 50 million dementia cases are caused by Alzheimer’s disease, and WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus predicts the number of people with dementia will triple in the next 30 years.

Is There a Cure for Dementia?

There is currently no cure for dementia, but depending on the situation, some symptoms may be reversible. For example, memory loss related to a traumatic brain injury. But in most cases, dementia symptoms are progressive, and the physical, psychological, and social toll on persons with dementia, their caregivers, and their community is enormous.

In May, the WHO released guidelines identifying key interventions that can help reduce the risk of cognitive decline and the onset of dementia. These guidelines include:

  • leading a more physically active lifestyle,
  • maintaining a healthy weight,
  • limiting alcohol consumption,
  • eating a healthy diet, and
  • keeping blood pressure, blood glucose, and cholesterol in check.

3 Studies Linking Exercise to Reduced Risk of Dementia

Physical and Cognitive Activities Linked to Lower Odds of Developing Dementia

The journal Neurology published a study that found that both physical and cognitive activities (which includes artistic pursuits, intellectual activities, and club activities among others) in midlife were linked to lower odds of developing dementia later in life. The study followed 800 women over 44 years.

“Physical and cognitive activities in midlife were linked to lower odds of developing dementia later in life.”

Less Active People May Have an Increased Risk of Dementia

The Journals of Gerontology published a study using data from the Framingham Heart Study—formerly the National Heart Institute—found that over time, the least active 20% of people had a higher risk of having dementia than their more active peers. However, this link between exercise and dementia risk was limited to those who did not carry the high-risk gene associated with late-onset Alzheimer’s. The study looked at data from 3,714 people.

Increasing Exercise Capacity Reduced Dementia Risk

Research published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings found an 8% reduction in dementia risk for every one metabolic equivalent (MET) increase in exercise capacity. MET is the estimation calories a person burns during physical activity relative to the mass of that person. An individual’s resting metabolic rate is considered one MET. The study analyzed data on over 6,100 veterans over 10 years.

Health Club's Role in Preventing Dementia

Health clubs have a clear role in helping this and future generations of older adults hedge their bets against dementia. The WHO guidelines on dementia prevention emphasize living a healthy lifestyle. Something health clubs are well equipped to do to help their communities.

Fitness facilities are a great place to be physically active and build exercise capacity. Also, research has linked physical activity to lower blood pressure, better glucose control, and more favorable cholesterol numbers, all factors that the WHO says can help prevent dementia.

Many clubs also offer opportunities for cognitive activities—like social activities and games for older adults—which the Neurology study also linked with lower dementia risk.

In addition to offering a safe place to exercise, clubs help their members find and sustain healthy diets that work for them. Clubs that provide nutrition services with a registered dietitian help their members maintain control of their weight, blood sugar, blood glucose, and blood pressure.

To learn more about offering nutrition expertise in the club, check out The Important Role Diet & Nutrition Play at Your Gym or our e-book on Leveraging Nutrition Expertise at Your Health Club.

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Alexandra Black Larcom @ihrsagetactive

Alexandra Black Larcom, MPH, RD, LDN, is the Senior Manager of Health Promotion & Health Policy for IHRSA. She spends her days working on resources and projects that help IHRSA clubs offer effective health programs in their communities, and convincing lawmakers that policies promoting exercise are an excellent idea. Outside the office you'll most likely find Alex at the gym, running on the Charles River, or, in the fall, by a TV cheering on the Florida Gators.