The Link Between Physical Fitness and Cognitive Health

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • My mom was diagnosed with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) in 1997. Her diagnosis of Alzheimer’s came in 2005. I always wondered if there was a link between the two health issues.

    Recently, a new report suggests that my gut instinct may be true. A new study from the Group Health Cooperative indicates a relationship between poor physical performance and an increased risk of dementia in individuals 65 years or older.

    Mom’s diagnosis of lung disease came when she was in her early 70s. Since we all lived in Austin at the time, I had a first-hand view of how fragile her body became. Some of the drugs prescribed to help her lungs made her skin so thin that it ripped at the slightest impact. For instance, I decided to visit my parents one day after work. Coming into their house I saw a pool of red stuff at the front door; it turned out to be blood. Entering, I found my mom’s leg wrapped in gauze and elevated. She had been out gardening that afternoon and had hit something (although she didn’t know what). That hit had not ripped her pants or her hose, but it had torn her shin to the tune of 34 stitches. I don’t know if a loss of balance caused Mom’s accident, but that is definitely a possibility.
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    As Mom’s COPD progressed, her physical capacity faded. By 2002, she was experiencing some memory loss, although she would claim it was just due to old age. She had to really concentrate to keep her balance and she had difficulty walking for short distances due to her lung capacity. Her grip strength became almost non-existent.

    The Group Health Cooperative’s findings seem to parallel my mom’s experiences. The researchers assessed physical performance for more than 2,000 people from the mid-1990s through 2003. Each person was asked to take tests to measure physical performance on walking, chair-to-stand time, standing balance, and grip strength. During the follow-up, a total of 319 subjects developed dementia. The researchers found that the rate of dementia was significantly lower in individuals with the highest physical function scores. Furthermore, the study found that the slowing of a person’s gait and poor balance may show up during an early stage of dementia when cognitive impairment is not evident.

    This information comes too late for my mom, but can help others take steps to maintain their physical health. Whether through regular walking, cycling, weight-lifting, yoga, or tai chi, you and your loved ones can use today’s exercise to build some resistance to this disease which may be part of our future. On that note, I am off to take my dog, Zoe, for a walk.

    What do you think about these research developments? Tell us in the message boards.
Published On: June 05, 2006