Exercise, Cholesterol, And Dementia: How Are They Related?

As we age, there are many aspects of our health that can potentially decline. 

Thankfully, from physical to emotional, and even mental health, exercise boasts many benefits to these areas that are easily obtained when we simply move our bodies.

Specifically, exercise can improve the health of your brain and keep your cholesterol levels healthy! 

But, is there any connection between those two exercise induced improvements? 

As elevated cholesterol levels have been linked to deteriorating brain function, this begs the question: If there is a link between exercise and lowered cholesterol levels, and there is a link between cholesterol levels and cognitive functioning, can we accurately theorize that exercise could potentially benefit brain function, even decreasing the risk of dementia? 

Let’s find out…


Exercise And Cholesterol

We’re all familiar with what is meant by exercise, or physical activity, but what exactly is cholesterol? 

Cholesterol is a substance, often described as waxy, that is used by your body to make vitamins and hormones, build cells, and help guide nerve endings. 

But, as cholesterol moves through your blood, if there is too much LDL cholesterol, also known as “bad” cholesterol, it can bind with other substances to build up within your arteries making them hard and ultimately increasing your risk of both heart attack and stroke. 

Exercise, thankfully, works to increase the size of the proteins that work to carry cholesterol through your blood. And, it also stimulates specific enzymes tasked with moving LDL cholesterol to your liver, where it is then converted to bile and excreted. 

Even better, studies show that those people who participate regularly in vigorous exercise effectively increase their levels of “good” cholesterol (HDL) as well, which works to remove cholesterol from the blood. 

So, clearly exercise has benefits pertaining to keeping good and bad cholesterol at healthy levels, but how does it affect brain function, specifically dementia? 

Before we can look at this potential link, let’s explore the effects of cholesterol on the brain…

Cholesterol And Dementia

The term dementia is used to describe a group of medical conditions and disorders (such as Alzheimer’s disease) all stemming from abnormal changes that occur within the brain. 

When these changes take place, dementia sufferers experience symptoms severe enough to alter their daily lives, such as: 

  • Loss of memory
  • Slowed thinking
  • Difficulty communicating 
  • Decreased problem solving skills
  • Diminished motor control or coordination
  • Confusion
  • Decreased ability to focus

Due to these changes, dementia can also cause a person to experience changes in their personality or behavior, including depression, increased agitation, anxiety, paranoia, and even hallucinations. 

All of these symptoms and changes are thought to be caused by damage to nerve cells in the brain, leading to a loss of connectivity between these cells. 

So then, how does cholesterol fit into the puzzling question of: “what causes this nerve cell damage within the brain?” 

And…this is where it gets tricky. 

As we already briefly mentioned, cholesterol helps to guide nerve endings, making it a needed element of healthy brain function. 

However, cholesterol can cause a build-up of a protein called beta-amyloid, which causes the formation of amyloid plaque, a commonality present in the brains of dementia sufferers. 

And, the presence of this build up is thought to be the link to why research consistently proves that high cholesterol levels, especially throughout the middle stages of life, can greatly increase a person’s risk of developing dementia (particularly Alzheimer’s disease) later in life.  

In fact, high levels of “bad” (LDL) cholesterol have been found to negatively affect even general cognitive function, with those people with high LDL cholesterol reporting problems with memory and/or memorization. 

So then, after all the gloom and doom, how about some good news? 

Thankfully, recent studies have found a promising solution for the changes within the brain associated with dementia! 

Exercise And Dementia: The Science

Most all kinds of exercise have been noted for their benefit to the body. 

From improvements to the health of your heart, to weight loss and better weight management, to even your emotional health, regular exercise is a needful part of a healthy lifestyle! 

And, as physical activity also boasts benefits to the health of your brain, researchers have delved deeper into this notion, leading to some promising findings regarding aerobic exercise and a decreased risk of dementia. 

Exercise Benefits The Hippocampus
A recent year-long study found that aerobic exercise helps to slow the shrinkage of the part of the brain associated with memory (the hippocampus).

Comparing brain function and brain size in two groups of sedentary, aged adults with current memory problems, a team of researchers explored whether exercise worked to improve or prevent neurocognitive function.  

The team also studied the effects of such exercise on both brain atrophy and the amyloid build up often present in dementia patients. 

Within this study, one group of participants engaged in aerobic exercise for roughly 30 minutes, 4-5 times a week, while the other group only did flexibility training. 

And, while both groups preserved cognitive function regarding memory and problem solving, it was the group who regularly engaged in aerobic exercise that gained benefit to the portion of the brain associated with memory, experiencing less shrinkage in their hippocampus. 

The team of scientists here believe that the cardiovascular benefits of aerobic exercise may be the reason for this added benefit, theorizing the improvements to vascular health extend to the health of the brain as well. 

And, other research regarding the effects of exercise on the body back up these findings! 

Exercise Has Anti-Inflammatory Effects On The Brain
A recent study published in Nature, detailed the effects of exercise on the health of the brain specifically looking at how physical activity causes the release of anti-inflammatory molecules.

Here, researchers studied two groups of mice, one group freely permitted to exercise on an exercise wheel over the course of a month, while the other group had their exercise wheel locked, preventing such activity. 

After 30 days, the exercising mice were observed to have more neurons in their hippocampus than those mice who were sedentary. 

Then, the study was furthered when a third group of mice were also forced to be sedentary for the span of a month, afterwards being infused with the blood plasma of the mice from either the sedentary or active group. 

The results? Those mice infused with the blood plasma of the active mice all performed better in a series of cognitive tests than those mice infused with the blood of the sedentary mice. 

Pairing these findings with a similar study from UC San Francisco, researchers have singled out a protein known as clusterin, which they believe effectively provides needed anti-inflammatory properties specifically targeting the brain (brain inflammation).

To test this belief, the team:

  • removed clusterin from the blood of the active mice and miraculously, the prior benefits to the sedentary mice infused with this blood ceased to be
  • administered clusterin by itself and signs of brain inflammation in the neuro-affected mice were diminished

 Ah, but how did these research findings involving mice work out when tested in humans? 

Evaluating data collected from a six month study on 20 veterans with mild cognitive impairment, researchers found those participants who exercised three times per week had higher levels of clusterin in their blood and showed improvements when memory was tested. 

And, while these findings do not mean that clusterin is, or will be, a cure all for dementia, they do show an interesting link between regular physical activity and improvements in memory and decreasing hippocampus shrinkage. 

Conclusion – Exercise, Cholesterol, And Dementia

So, what do we know for sure: 

  • It is true that high cholesterol levels can increase one’s risk of dementia. 
  • It is proven that exercise can improve cholesterol levels. 
  • We know that exercise can improve brain function and prevent cognitive decline.

And, what looks promising: 

  • Exercise seems to not only lower cholesterol levels, but may protect against dementia. 
  • Specific proteins (clusterin) produced through aerobic exercise have the potential to reduce cognitive decline and lower the risk of dementia. 

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