Have you ever had a patient who, when trying to excuse some behavior or condition, blamed it on their genes?
We tend to see genes as the determining factor for everything from our weight to our propensity to develop certain neurological diseases and while genes can play an important role in many areas of health, in most cases they don’t act alone.
Take Alzheimer’s Disease for example…is that primarily genetic or is there something we can do to try to prevent it?
I read a recent study that brought this home to me.
For many people, Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) is something that is both mysterious and feared, as we are still learning how it develops (why do only certain people develop AD?) and how to combat its devastating effects.
One of the greatest neurobiological factors to developing AD is age, but genetics can also play a role.
All people carry the gene APOE, which is involved in metabolism. But people who carry the APOE gene mutation e4 increase their risk of developing AD by 15 times that of someone without the e4 mutation.
Those who carry this mutation generally show signs of dementia earlier than people without the mutation (in their 60s vs. in their 80s) and it’s possible that this mutation is hereditary, though it’s still too early to say for sure.
Now this is where neuroplasticity comes in: a new study in The Archives of Neurology suggests that exercise’s role in changing the brain can help compensate for this genetic predisposition to developing AD.
Denise Head, PhD with a team of researchers out of Washington University (St. Louis, Missouri) took 201 adults between the ages of 45-88, none of whom were showing cognitive signs of AD.
The participants were given brain scans and DNA testing in order to document amyloid plaque in the brain (a large amount of which is associated with memory loss and AD) and to test for the e4 mutation.
They then completed extensive questionnaires about their exercise habits over the last 10 years.
When the questionnaire results were compiled, researchers found that exercise was marginally beneficial for those who walked or jogged at least 30 minutes 5 times a week.
These study participants showed less amyloid plaque, though the difference in plaque between the exercising and non-exercising groups was minimal.
However, when also factoring in the e4 mutation, the results were startlingly different.
Those with the e4 mutation had much more amyloid plaque than participants without the mutation, except for those who both exercised and carried e4 mutations. Their plaque levels were the same as people who didn’t carry the mutation.
Now, this study isn’t randomized or controlled, so it’s not possible to find a direct causal link between exercise, e4 mutation, and brain health.
But there are lots of “gold standard” studies out there showing the link between exercise and increased brain health.
If what you heard here interests you, you should check out our New Brain Science webinar series.
This webinar series includes interviews with experts in the field who will discuss not just new findings in neuroscience, but also how to apply these findings for improving neural health.
Do you have patients who worry about developing Alzheimer’s Disease? What have you suggested to them? Please leave a comment below.