Lifestyles That Can Improve Abilities in Later Life and Perhaps Diminish Alzheimer's Disease
Nippak and colleagues at the University of Toronto performed a research study using beagles. They examined two groups of dogs. Both groups entered into the research project and were examined three years later. One group had increased physical exercise, increased environmental testing and foods with "antioxidants." (Antioxidants are chemicals found in certain foods, such as blueberries and broccoli, that decrease the injury to the body caused by certain naturally occurring changes in oxygen.) The dogs were tested after three years. The researchers found that the dogs that were more active, more stimulated, and fed with the antioxidants made fewer errors and had faster responses on a test requiring the dogs to make certain types of decisions.
We probably all want to have smarter dogs. However, most of us are probably more concerned with our own health and abilities as we get older. We all have a tendency to sit, watch television and eat junk food. Perhaps, research such as that by Nippak and colleagues indicate that this is not the best lifestyle for us to have as we prepare for getting older.
Doing research on people is not like doing research on dogs. We all know how much faster a dog grows old than a person grows old. Also, researchers can't select young people, divide them into two groups, and have one sit, watch television and eat junk food, while the other group jogs, plays Scrabble and eats broccoli or blueberries, and then examine both groups at 80 years old. However, Rovio and colleagues from the Aging Research Center of the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden have examined people beginning in the 1970s. At that time, the average age of their study population was about 50 years. Approximately 20 years later, when the average age was about 71 years. They found that an "active" middle life was associated with a lower likelihood of Alzheimer's disease than was a "sedentary" middle life. An active middle life in middle age was defined as leisure time physical activity occurring at least twice a week, lasting at least 20 -- 30 minutes and causing breathlessness and sweating.
Unlike the improving state of research for physical activity and diet which includes some studies in people, research on the benefits of cognitive (thinking and memory) tasks is, at this time, limited to studies in animals. Wolf and colleagues in Berlin Germany showed that mice with environmental enrichment (the mouse equivalent of increased thinking and memory) had increased chemicals in the brain that are important for brain function. These brain chemicals are located in areas of the brain important for memory and are a typical location for abnormalities in Alzheimer's disease. Other researchers have shown that environmental enrichment in other animal species can improve abilities in aging animals. It remains to be seen, if such activity in people will ultimately benefit them in decreasing the impact of aging or disease on brain functions that, when damaged, contribute to dementia.
In summary, we know that a healthy lifestyle is beneficial for the body. Exercise, eating healthy foods and maintaining activity leads to better health with aging. It would certainly not be a surprise if such activities improve brain function and help protect against aging as they do for heart function and other organs. How much activity and which activities are questions that still remain to be answered.