Exercise for seniors is crucial for brain health

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Many seniors and almost-seniors fear becoming helpless because of Alzheimer's and other dementias. The longer someone lives, the greater the chance of developing it. One in six people over age 80 is afflicted by it. But there are ways to lower the risk.

Alzheimer's disease is characterized by impaired cognitive function, with memory loss seen most often. It also leads to major verbal impairment, spatial awareness problems and lower overall functioning. There is no cure, although advances are being made.

Lowering the risk involves four strategies, according to Dr. Doug Brown, director of research and development for the Alzheimer's Society UK:

  • Stop smoking (another one of the many dangers of this bad habit).
  • Eat a healthy diet, preferably the Mediterranean Diet, which includes lots of vegetables and fruits, healthy oils, fish, nuts, legumes, and red meats only several times a month.
  • Take care of your heart, which is aided by the other three strategies.
  • Exercise, which is by far the most important strategy.

A number of human and animal studies have shown the distinct, positive results of exercise on the brain, not only on those with mild cognitive impairment (an early symptom of Alzheimer's and other dementias), but also on healthy individuals. Some of these studies are the following:

  • A group of seniors were divided in two: one group walked for 40 minutes several days a week, and the other group did stretching and toning exercises for the same year-long time period. The walking group improved markedly in memory, the ability to organize tasks, plan ahead, foresee the future and even daydream more. The stretching group showed no improvement.
  • A study involving animals showed that exercise increased the blood flow to the brain and increased connections between nerve cells. It also showed an improvement in memory and learning.
  • A study involving 3000 men who were followed for 35 years showed that regular exercise in adult life (walking 30 minutes, 5 days a week) was more important than any other factor in lowering the risk of dementia.
  • Exercise can even help improve those with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a forerunner of Alzheimer's. A University of Maryland School of Public Health study showed that when seniors engage in a program of moderate-intensity exercise, the outer layer of the brain (the cortex) is thickened. Softening of the cortex is seen in dementia.

"Many people think it is too late to intervene with exercise once a person shows symptoms of memory loss," says Dr. J. Carson Smith, author of the study, "but our data suggest that exercise may have a benefit in this early stage of cognitive decline."

Which exercise type is best?

  • In a study by the University of British Columbia, researchers followed two groups of older women for six months. They all had MCI. One group walked and the other did weight training. The results showed both groups improved on cognitive tests at the end of the study.
  • A study of rats showed the same results. Some ran on exercise wheels, and others had weights attached to them and climbed up little ladders.

Teresa Liu-Ambrose, researcher in the six-month study, said that at the beginning, the team expected to see a smaller decline in the subjects' cognitive function but were surprised to find "profound" improvement whether the result of walking or weight training.

Each type of exercise affects different sections of the brain, so to get the maximum benefit, both can be done.

The Mayo Clinic recommends exercising several times a week for 30 to 60 minutes. It will help lower the risk of decline in healthy people, and will help those with MCI with thinking skills, memory, judgment and reasoning.

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