Can sports increase risk of Alzheimer’s disease?

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It’s well-known that being active is good for our health, and recent studies have shown it can also boost our brain power. However, not everyone might experience these benefits equally.

Researchers from the University of Geneva (UNIGE), working alongside teams from the University Hospitals of Geneva (HUG) and the University of Lausanne (UNIL), have been investigating how engaging in sports affects the memories of young adults who are genetically predisposed to Alzheimer’s disease.

This group of young people, who carry a specific genetic variation, were found to have weaker associative memory compared to those without the variation.

This study, detailed in the journal “Cerebral Cortex,” also highlights how these young adults, despite not showing any actual symptoms of Alzheimer’s, exhibit certain changes in their brain activity that suggest their brains are trying to compensate for their memory weaknesses.

Physical activities cause the body to release certain molecules known as endocannabinoids.

These molecules are important because they help us feel good and play a significant role in activating parts of the brain linked with memory and navigation, like the hippocampus. This brain region is crucial since it’s one of the first areas affected in Alzheimer’s disease.

Dr. Kinga Igloi and her team, including Professor Sophie Schwartz from the Department of Fundamental Neurosciences at UNIGE, focused on how moderate physical exercise impacts memory functions.

They previously discovered that just 30 minutes of moderate exercise could improve memory.

In their current project, they wanted to see if this benefit extends to young adults who are at a higher genetic risk of Alzheimer’s.

Around 20% of the population carries a gene variant that can increase the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s by three to twelve times, and it can also cause the disease to start nearly 15 years earlier than usual.

To explore this, the team worked with 50 participants between the ages of 18 and 25, all of whom showed no signs of cognitive issues.

These volunteers were tasked with learning a series of images. After the learning session, they either rode a bike at a moderate pace for 30 minutes or simply rested.

The researchers then tested the participants’ memory by asking them to recall the order of the images they had seen. The study included two groups: half of the volunteers had the Alzheimer’s risk gene, and the other half did not.

What they found was quite surprising. The group with the genetic risk didn’t perform as well in memory tests as the control group, regardless of whether they had exercised or not.

Using MRI scans and blood tests, the scientists noticed that after exercise, the control group had better hippocampus activation and higher endocannabinoid levels.

In contrast, the at-risk group showed more intense activation of the hippocampus under all conditions, which suggests their brains were working harder to reach similar memory performance levels.

This finding implies that these young adults’ brains might be developing ways to offset their potential memory deficits.

The researchers are now looking to see if this kind of brain compensation also happens during other types of memory tasks and in other settings.

Despite these specific findings, Dr. Igloi and Professor Schwartz emphasize that exercising remains beneficial for everyone.

It supports overall brain health and cognitive abilities, regardless of one’s risk for Alzheimer’s. This study serves as a reminder of the complex ways in which exercise and genetics interact to affect our brain health.

If you care about Alzheimer’s disease, please read studies that bad lifestyle habits can cause Alzheimer’s disease, and strawberries can be good defence against Alzheimer’s.

For more information about brain health, please see recent studies that oral cannabis extract may help reduce Alzheimer’s symptoms, and Vitamin E may help prevent Parkinson’s disease.

The research findings can be found in Cerebral Cortex.

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