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Physical activity can cut risk of Alzheimer’s, report suggests

Activities like ballroom dancing that combine physical and cognitive are thought to be especially helpful.

Enrique Marcarian/REUTERS

More than half a million Canadians have Alzheimer's disease, and that number is expected to double within the next 30 years. But a new report by the government-funded Ontario Brain Institute suggests there is a cost-effective solution, which would drastically curb that growth: physical activity.

While ways of treating Alzheimer's are limited, regular physical activity can reduce people's risk of developing the neuro-degenerative disease by nearly 40 per cent, according to the report. It can also help maintain or even improve cognition as people age, and can significantly increase the quality of life of those who have the disease.

The report, which summarizes the findings of more than 900 papers spanning 50 years of research, is described as the largest meta-analysis on the topic to date, providing strong evidence of the power of physical activity on the health of the brain.

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In an online presentation to reporters on Thursday, Dr. Donald Stuss, president and scientific director of the Ontario Brain Institute, noted that the economic cost of Alzheimer's disease in Canada is around $15-billion a year. By encouraging the entire population to become physically active, more than 41,000 cases could be avoided, saving the country between $236-million to $2.6-billion a year.

But even convincing 10 per cent of Canadians who are currently inactive to take up physical activity could have a huge impact; it would amount to an estimated 3,445 avoidable cases of Alzheimer's disease and a savings of $19-million to $217-million a year, Stuss said. Economic costs are only part of the picture, he added. "It's not just health-care costs. The personal and societal costs are significant – and that means the costs [to] families, caregivers."

Unfortunately, he said, most Canadians exercise well below the minimum amount needed to be considered physically active, or the equivalent of 30 accumulative minutes a day of brisk walking. On average, around 60 per cent of Canadians reported themselves as not meeting this threshold.

"That is not a high standard that needs to be met," Stuss said. "This is something everyone can work to. It's not marathon running. It is not necessarily going to the gym. It is activity; ways of being just mobile."

It is yet unknown just how much physical activity and what kinds of exercise are best for preventing Alzheimer's disease, said Laura Middleton, an assistant professor of kinesiology at the University of Waterloo, although she and Stuss recommended activities like ballroom dancing that combine physical and cognitive skills.

However, while speaking to reporters, Middleton noted that research indicates that becoming active earlier in life may have the greatest impact.

"What we found, perhaps surprisingly, is that physical activity levels at teen age were most strongly associated with the reduction in the rates of cognitive impairment in late life," she said, explaining that active teenagers were 35 per cent less likely to eventually develop Alzheimer's disease, and other forms of dementia, as well as milder cognitive issues, compared with people who became active later in life, who had a 20 to 30 per cent lower risk. "It does seem that starting earlier may be better."

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