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How Exercise Can Keep the Brain Fit

For those of us hoping to keep our brains fit and healthy well into middle age and beyond, the latest science offers some reassurance. Activity appears to be critical, though scientists have yet to prove that exercise can ward off serious problems like Alzheimer’s disease. But what about the more mundane, creeping memory loss that begins about the time our 30s recede, when car keys and people’s names evaporate? It’s not Alzheimer’s, but it’s worrying. Can activity ameliorate its slow advance — and maintain vocabulary retrieval skills, so that the word “ameliorate” leaps to mind when needed?

Obligingly, a number of important new studies have just been published that address those very questions. In perhaps the most encouraging of these, Canadian researchers measured the energy expenditure and cognitive functioning of a large group of elderly adults over the course of two to five years. Most of the volunteers did not exercise, per se, and almost none worked out vigorously. Their activities generally consisted of “walking around the block, cooking, gardening, cleaning and that sort of thing,” said Laura Middleton, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario and lead author of the study, which was published in Archives of Internal Medicine.

Seniors excercising at home...

But even so, the effects of this modest activity on the brain were remarkable, Dr. Middleton said. While the wholly sedentary volunteers, and there were many of these, scored significantly worse over the years on tests of cognitive function, the most active group showed little decline. About 90 percent of those with the greatest daily energy expenditure could think and remember just about as well, year after year.

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