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Health Insights Illinois

Strong body, strong mind: Can exercise reduce your risk of Alzheimer's disease?

You know exercise is good for your heart, lungs, muscles, and bones, but recently experts are finding increasing evidence showing that exercise is good for your brain too – including reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. 

What is Alzheimer's disease?

Whether choosing what to eat, discussing a book with a friend, or remembering where you left the car keys, the brain plays a vital role in your daily life. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia. For those with Alzheimer’s, chemical changes occur in the brain leading to a buildup of plaques and decreased functioning of neurons. As Alzheimer’s progresses, the brain shrinks in size accompanied by a decline in cognitive function so severe it begins to affect an individual’s ability to perform daily tasks. Alzheimer’s affects an individual’s memory, thinking, and behavior. Symptoms tend to appear after age 60, although early-onset Alzheimer’s can occur in younger adults. Although the exact causes of Alzheimer’s are not fully understood, a combination of genetic, lifestyle, and environmental factors are involved. This means that while you might have a genetic predisposition to develop Alzheimer’s, there are actions you can take to reduce your risk.

What are the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease?

  • Memory loss – getting lost in familiar places or repeating questions
  • Decreased thinking and reasoning – misplacing things or being unable to retrace your steps to find things
  • Poor judgment and decision making
  • Difficulty planning and performing familiar tasks
  • Changes in personality and behavior 

Alzheimer's disease by the numbers

  • In 2020, nearly 6 million Americans were living with Alzheimer’s disease
  • Alzheimer’s is the 5th leading cause of death among adults aged 65 or older in the U.S.
  • Black Americans are about twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s than White Americans, yet Black Americans are about 35% less likely to be diagnosed
  • The costs of treating Alzheimer’s in the U.S. is projected to amount to about $500 billion per year by 2040

How can exercise help reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease?

There is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, but there are lifestyle behaviors you can adopt to reduce your risk, and regular exercise tops the list! 

Recent research shows that the risk of Alzheimer’s can be reduced by 45% with regular physical activity. If physical activity is not already part of your daily routine, even walking just 4,000 steps per day can reduce your risk. To learn more about how to use walking to prevent chronic disease and improve your health, read our Let’s Walk! blog post.

Tips for using exercise to reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease

  1. It’s never too late to start! You can reap the benefits of exercise and reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s at any age. Even individuals who have already been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s can use exercise to reduce symptoms and slow progression of the disease.
  2. Start small. Remember 4,000 steps is equivalent to about 40 minutes of walking, but this can be broken up throughout the day. A good place to start might be aiming for a 20-minute walk in the morning and evening.
  3. Everything counts. Physical activity doesn’t just happen in the gym. Finding ways to incorporate more movement into your day with activities such as gardening, walking the dog, and cleaning can all add up!
  4. Mix things up to stay motivated! Trying new activities, walking in different parts of your neighborhood or in different parks, and exercising with friends are all good strategies for keeping exercise fun.
  5. Stay consistent. Small consistent exercise habits will have a greater impact on your health than a few big gym sessions. Join a group fitness class or support group, find ways to build physical activity into your daily routine, choose exercise activities you enjoy, and track your progress and how you feel after exercising to help you stick with it!

As you age, there seems to be a longer and longer list of chronic diseases you need to watch out for – heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol, cancer, and now Alzheimer’s too – it can all feel overwhelming. Luckily, regular exercise is one small habit that can reduce your risk for all these conditions! To learn more about using exercise to reduce the risk of chronic disease, check out our blog on using exercise to prevent or manage diabetes.

What exercise activity will you do today to reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer's? 

Additional resources

About the authors

Albert Bang wrote this article as part of his Physical Activity Promotion internship with the Integrated Health Disparities program during the Spring 2024 semester. Albert is a 2024 graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where he earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Community Health.

Caitlin Fredericks is a statewide Physical Health Specialist. As part of the Integrated Health Disparities program, she provides education, programs, and resources to reduce health disparities in physical health. She is an ACSM certified personal trainer, an ACE certified group fitness instructor, and an Oh Baby! Fitness Pre/Postnatal Exercise Specialist. Caitlin has diverse experience working at the intersection of education and physical activity and is actively collaborating with local coalitions to strengthen our community. The Integrated Health Disparities program tackles health issues with an integrated lens of physical, mental, and community health providing programs and resources to address health inequalities.