SAN FRANCISCO — Regular gym workouts could be a significant factor in warding off Alzheimer’s disease, according to new research. A team in California has found that individuals with leaner muscles have a lower risk of developing the condition.
“Based on human genetics data, those with a lifelong higher lean muscle mass had a 12 percent lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease and exhibited superior cognitive performance,” reports Dr. Iyas Daghlas, the lead study author from the University of California-San Francisco.
The research team analyzed data from over a million volunteers, which included 450,243 participants from the UK Biobank with detailed DNA information. The team used a method known as “Mendelian randomization,” involving variants linked to specific risk factors.
Lean muscle mass can be naturally inherited or developed through resistance training, such as weightlifting, combined with a healthy diet. Given the projection that dementia cases will surpass 150 million by 2050, with a third resulting from preventable factors like weight gain in midlife, focus on protective lifestyles is growing.
“Despite the consistent rise in Alzheimer’s prevalence, we currently have no effective treatments for this debilitating disease,” Dr. Daghlas’ team explains in the journal BMJ Medicine. “The identification of modifiable risk factors and prevention of Alzheimer’s is therefore a crucial public health objective.”
Weight gain contributes to inflammation and has been connected to an increase in neuron-damaging proteins called amyloid beta. Furthermore, lower levels of lean muscle mass have been associated with dementia. This study brings new insights to the relationship between muscle mass and Alzheimer’s disease.
The analysis found that individuals with high levels of lean muscle mass had a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease. The results remained “statistically robust” even after accounting for age, sex, and ancestry.
“Our analyses provide new evidence supporting a causal relationship between lean mass and the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. They debunk the notion that fat mass has a significant effect on the risk of Alzheimer’s and underscore the importance of distinguishing between lean and fat mass when investigating the impact of adiposity measures on health outcomes,” the study authors write.
Understanding the biological mechanisms behind this phenomenon could pave the way for developing targeted treatments. The research suggests that several factors could mediate this effect, including the influence of cardiometabolic risk factors or the release of myokines – proteins that are released during vigorous exercise.
“Potentially relevant secreted myokines include irisin, brain-derived neurotrophic factor 5, and cathepsin B. Identifying the key causal pathways might lead to the development of treatments that leverage and enhance the neuroprotective effects of lean mass,” Dr. Daghlas’ team adds.
Researchers are cautioning that more research is necessary before these findings can inform public health or clinical practice, as it’s still unclear whether increasing lean mass can reverse the pathology of Alzheimer’s disease.
However, if future studies corroborate these findings, “public health efforts to increase lean mass across the population, potentially through campaigns promoting exercise and physical activity, might reduce the population burden of Alzheimer’s disease,” the researchers conclude in a media release.
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South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.