In Germany, almost 1.8 million people suffer from dementia, two thirds of them from the most common form of dementia, Alzheimer’s. Although the disease and its consequences can be treated, there is still no cure for Alzheimer’s.

The good news: Everyone can do something to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s. According to the Alzheimer Research Initiative, the most important forms of prevention are:

  • Movement,
  • mental fitness,
  • social contacts and
  • the right diet.

Alzheimer’s disease: Protein deposits in the brain trigger symptoms

According to a study by researchers at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, even a simple breathing exercise could help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s. Protein deposits (proteins) in the brain that promote Alzheimer’s play a role here, specifically beta-amyloid plaques and tau fibrils. The two protein deposits disrupt communication in and between the nerve cells, causing nerve cells and nerve cell connections to die over the years. The regions in the brain that are responsible for memory, thinking, language and orientation are affected. The result is the typical Alzheimer’s symptoms such as memory loss, orientation difficulties or speech disorders.

The study focuses on the beta amyloids. In the case of Alzheimer’s disease, these natural protein proteins can no longer be broken down. They clump together and form indissoluble deposits between nerve cells called beta-amyloid plaques, also known as Alzheimer’s plaques. The scientists are now investigating how the level of beta-amyloid plaques in the blood could be reduced.

Breathing affects heart rate, which in turn affects the nervous system

“We know that the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems influence the production and breakdown of Alzheimer’s-related peptides and proteins,” explains Professor Mara Mather, leader of the study, in one Press release on the study. The sympathetic nervous system prepares the organism for an increase in activity (“fight or flight”). If it is activated, the time between individual heartbeats does not vary very much. The parasympathetic nervous system acts during periods of rest and regeneration (“rest and digestion”), with the heart rate increasing when inhaling and decreasing when exhaling.

Question of the study: If heart rate affects the nervous system, and this in turn is linked to Alzheimer’s proteins, are there ways to affect Alzheimer’s risk by affecting heart rate?

Study: Tasks had different effects on breathing

For their study, the researchers randomly divided 108 subjects – half “young” (18 to 30 years old), half “older” (55 to 80 years old) – into two groups. Over a period of four weeks, they were asked to do a specific exercise twice a day for 20 minutes.

The first group should listen to calming music or think of calming things, such as a beach scene or a walk in the park. In addition, they should monitor their heart rate on a computer screen and make sure that the heart rate line remains as constant as possible.

The second group should keep their breathing in a certain rhythm – inhale for five seconds and exhale for five seconds. For this, a square was shown on the screen, which got larger (breath in) and then smaller again (breath out). On the screen, they should monitor the heart rate with the aim of increasing the vibrations.

Breathing exercise could help lower Alzheimer’s risk

The result: In fact, the researchers were able to determine that the level of amyloid beta plaques in the blood of participants in the second group fell. Two key insights can be derived from this:

  • First: The variability of the heart rate (HRV, abbreviation for “heart rate variability”), i.e. the alternation of rising and falling heart rate, similar to the physical state of an active parasympathetic nervous system, apparently has a positive effect. The level of amyloid beta plaques, which promote Alzheimer’s, decreased.
  • Second, the study provides evidence that HRV can be influenced—even with a simple breathing exercise.

The lead author of the study, Mather, concludes: Regular practice of slow breathing could be “an inexpensive and low-risk way to lower plasma beta-amyloid levels and keep them low in adulthood”.

The mechanism behind this should be clarified in further investigations

Whether the breathing technique ensures that less protein is produced or whether the breakdown of the protein improves is now to be clarified by further studies.

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