Saving our brains from dementia; move your muscles, move your mind!

Impact: Public policy impacts

Description of impact

External need and context: Sedentary ageing slows down the way an elderly person thinks, concentrates, formulates ideas, reasons and remembers (cognitive impairment) that can ultimately result in dementia. The number of people suffering from dementia is in excess of 35 million with figures set to double every twenty years crippling healthcare expenditures that are projected to surpass those for all other health conditions by 2060. Given that no curative treatments are currently available, major efforts need to focus on prevention with emphasis directed towards modifiable risk factors such as promoting physical activity which has been shown to improve cognitive health for reasons that remain unclear. My research has helped elucidate the underlying mechanisms, relevant biomarkers and extent to which regular exercise reduces dementia risk by increasing blood flow to the brain.Timing of impact: The impact of my research has occurred over the past 5 years and remains ongoing given the inevitable complexities associated with translational integration into the clinical setting.
Nature of impact: Underpinned by outreach activities, my research has raised awareness to the extent and dangers of physical inactivity providing a published evidence-base for the safe prescription/optimisation of exercise training programs shown to delay cognitive decline and thus promote healthy ageing. It has also helped raise awareness amongst healthcare providers/policy makers to prescribe physical activity in the correct doses (just like any other type of medicine!) and further provided a complementary clinical screening tool that can detect those at increased risk including patients suffering from obesity, hypertension, diabetes mellitus and stroke.
Scale of impact: The impact has achieved both regional and international reach through: [1] media activity (e.g. BBC 1’s documentary entitled “Project Everest Expedition” (2016) nominated for a Welsh BAFTA Award, in my capacity as Scientific Leader promoting the benefits of physical activity as a countermeasure to dementia through enhanced oxygen delivery to the brain: and BBC 1’s more recent “How to Stay Young” documentary (2017) highlighting the neuroprotective benefits of exercise in females) that has reached out to over 120 countries and attracted millions of viewers/website hits, [2] academic research publications including “policy position statements” in prestigious journals funded by grant successes with international collaborators (e.g. Danish Cardiovascular Research Academy, c/o University of Copenhagen, Denmark and Canadian Trials for Optimized Results, c/o McGill University, Montreal, Canada), [3] invited keynotes at prestigious meetings (e.g. American College of Sports Medicine/World Congress on Exercise and the Brain, Denver, USA, May 2017), [4] prestigious public engagement fellowships (e.g. Williams Evans Fellowship to provide a televised academic lecture series in New Zealand in conjunction with [5] commercial partners (eg. ADInstruments, New Zealand who selected me as a Science Hero for “cutting-edge” research raising public awareness of the benefits of physical activity for the ageing human brain:

How did your research contribute?

Difference impact has made: My published research in prestigious journals has provided “academic integrity” to outreach activities taking advantage of unique experimental approaches (e.g. Richard Parks Everest Expedition televised by the BBC highlighting the benefits of high-altitude acclimatisation as a means of improving oxygen delivery to the brain thereby reducing cognitive impairment) in an attempt to “reach out” to not just the old but also the younger demographic, a unique generation given that they are carrying more vascular risk factors than their parents! By pushing exercise as “good medicine for your brain”, the public and healthcare providers in general have become more aware of the need to promote physically activity, especially here in Wales to improve quality of life as people get older and how to better screen for/detect unhealthy brain ageing. My findings have changed the perception/understanding of exercise in that the elderly brain can still reap the benefits of exercise, with a reduction in its “biological age” by up to as much as 20 years including related mechanisms in two landmark publications in the most prestigious journals (Bailey, D.M., et al. Elevated aerobic fitness sustained throughout the adult lifespan is associated with improved cerebral hemodynamics. Stroke 44: 3235-3238, 2013 and Bailey, D.M., et al. Nitrite and S-nitrosohemoglobin exchange across the human cerebral and femoral circulation: relationship to basal and exercise blood flow responses to hypoxia. Circulation 135: 166-176, 2017).
Innovative impact: My research has taken a mechanistic approach having identified novel biomarkers of brain ageing that has challenged conventional wisdom, informed public policy and debate and raised public awareness to the vascular benefits of physical activity. Exercise improves cognitive function given its ability to decrease free radicals, invisible molecules in the bloodstream that accumulate with age preventing blood vessels that supply the brain from fully opening up. I have demonstrated that fewer free radicals can turn back the brain's "hands-of-time" allowing it to function as if it were younger, a novel finding that paves the way for novel therapies including targeted neuro-antioxidant prophylaxis.

Who is affected?

Beneficiaries: My research findings have directly benefitted the individual both young and old, healthy and diseased including their families and society in general. It has also informed healthcare providers/clinicians providing them with alternative biomarkers to detect early dementia and safe/effective exercise interventions.
Impact date1 May 20121 May 2017
Category of impactPublic policy impacts
Impact levelClosed