Fighting Dementia With Exercise

by Wellness Editor – MH

It’s a sad but true fact – dementia is a widespread health problem amongst the elderly. It is estimated that between 30 and 50 percent of seniors aged 85 and older have some form of dementia. According to a study by the RAND Corporation, over 4 million Americans have dementia, and caring for them costs the US economy between $157 and $215 billion annually. Once it begins to affect the patient, dementia takes a progressively heavy toll on both the mind and body, rendering many seniors unable to properly care for themselves.

Since dementia has such a devastating impact on senior citizens, researchers have long looked for ways to prevent this disease. One possible tactic that might prove effective involves a very familiar term – exercise. Much has been written on the positive impact of an active lifestyle, along with exercise’s impact on mental health. In addition to these well-established benefits, some recent studies have suggested that exercise can serve as a sort of preventative measure against the onset of dementia.

Exercise Today For a Better Tomorrow

The February 5, 2013 issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine journal featured a study focusing on this very topic. This particular study included nearly 20,000 participants, all of whom were patients at the Cooper Clinic in Dallas, Texas (the Cooper Clinic is owned by the Cooper Institute, an organization dedicated to researching exercise’s impact on preserving the body’s health). At the beginning of the study, the bulk of the subjects were in their 40s and 50s, with the average participant being 50 years old.

In addition to tracking each subject’s level of physical activity, the Cooper Clinic also monitored dementia diagnoses amongst their group of volunteers. To do this, the researchers acquired the participants’ Medicare records over a ten year span (1999 through 2009). At the conclusion of this period, when the test subjects were generally between 70 and 90 years of age, a total of 1,659 participants had developed dementia of some type.

After collecting, reviewing and analyzing their data, the Cooper Clinic team found a solid connection between an active lifestyle and a reduced risk of dementia. At the beginning of the study, the Cooper Clinic gauged each adult’s level of physical fitness by subjecting them to an exercise treadmill test. The most physically fit adults proved to be the most resilient against dementia in their later years. Compared with the subjects who scored most poorly on the fitness test, the most in-shape group was 36 percent less likely to suffer from dementia.

The Cooper Clinic is hardly the only group to have examined the relationship between exercise and mental disease. The prestigious Mayo Clinic, based in Rochester, Minnesota, published a study of its own in September 2011. For their study, the Mayo researchers defined exercise as any activity that simultaneously increased the body’s heart rate and need for oxygen. This allowed the study to cast a wide net, examining the impact of activities ranging from gym workouts to walking to simply raking leaves.

While cautioning that more research should still be conducted on the matter, the Mayo researchers found that regular exercise could not only reduce a person’s risk of dementia, but also help mitigate symptoms should it appear. The Mayo team reached this conclusion after reviewing as much information on this topic as possible; this eventually meant combing through 1600 previously published studies.

Reversing Cognitive Damage

In April 2012, research published in the Archives of Internal Medicine (later renamed the Journal of the American Medical Association) echoed one of the major findings of the Mayo Clinic report. Conducted by a research team from the University of British Columbia (UBC), this study differed from similar research efforts in terms of its scope and methods. Instead of spending years tracking middle aged adults with no prior history of cognitive disease, the UBC researchers focused on a small group of elderly women with mild cognitive impairment. Unlike dementia, which often renders seniors completely reliant upon the care of others, mild cognitive impairment is not severe enough to prevent patients from being self-sufficient. However, many patients who develop this condition are eventually diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.

The UBC study featured a total 86 participants, all of whom were between 70 and 80 years of age. The women were separated into three groups, each assigned with its own specific fitness regimen. Depending on the group, the subjects were assigned sets of either strength training, aerobic or balance and tone exercises. These activities were to be performed twice per week over a six month period.

Somewhat surprisingly, the group engaged in regular strength training responded best to their new workout routine. Among other findings, this group showed noticeable improvement in associative memory, or the ability to recall the relationship between unrelated items. Interestingly enough, the group assigned aerobic exercises did not improve their scores on cognitive tests.

Though people generally exercise to shed pounds or improve their physique, staying active often has a positive effect on the body’s emotional and mental wellbeing.  When reviewing all the available evidence, it appears that regular exercise may help keep the mind sharp well into your golden years.

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