We are made to move. Increasing the amount of physical exercise in our lives can help us maintain a healthy weight, prevent heart disease, and simply make us feel better. Exercise has also repeatedly been shown to help maintain a healthy brain. Most recently, according to the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, a study led by Cyrus Raji, MD, PhD, at UCLA, added significantly more value to existing information about exercise and Alzheimer’s.
After studying active and sedentary people, the researchers found that exercise was associated with larger gray matter volume in the frontal, temporal, and parietal lobes, as well as the hippocampus, thalamus, and basal ganglia.
Medical News Today reported that, "the participants [in the study] underwent periodic standard cognitive assessment and volumetric magnetic resonance brain imaging and provided information on their everyday physical activities, such as walking, tennis, dancing, and golfing, to determine their weekly energy output.”
Why wait for disease to strike?
Cardiologists have been sending people to gyms for decades in order to prevent heart attacks or for rehabilitation after one has occurred. It’s not farfetched to think that, eventually, doctors working with Alzheimer’s and dementia patients might begin prescribing exercise before they prescribe medication.
While there has been progress in research into drugs that can prevent or cure Alzheimer’s disease, we'll still be waiting a number of years, if not decades, before anyone comes up with a, "magic pill." In the meantime, researchers have repeatedly found that lifestyle changes including diet, exercise, and stretching the brain are, right now, our only weapons against the disease.
No one is suggesting that people who currently have Alzheimer’s wouldn’t have developed the disease no matter how active they were or how healthy their diet. The aim of these studies is to find methods of preventing at least some future cases of Alzheimer’s while we work toward what is likely to be a mixed approach. New medications are being tested in clinical trials, surgery such as deep brain stimulation is close to being approved and alteration of gut bacteria, along with other attempts such as genetic manipulation that may alter the process before it begins could be real options in the not too distant future.
Healthy mind, healthy body
My view is that we have few choices at this time other than convincing ourselves to practice a healthy lifestyle. For many of us, of course, that's far easier said than done.
Even though we know that heart disease, some kinds of cancer, and other health-related issues can be prevented, or at least staved off, for a few years by a healthy lifestyle, we sometimes tend to focus on the many cases where nothing could have made a difference.
For example, my dad suffered a close head injury during World War II. After the aging process caused fluid to build up behind scar tissue from that injury, Dad had surgery in an attempt to fix the problem. Tragically, something went wrong and he came of out the process with severe dementia. Nothing anyone could have done, other than keeping him out of WWII, could have prevented this devastation.
I’m a firm believer in relieving the feeling of helplessness that so often accompanies dementia, which in itself is stressful. Stress is a known factor in Alzheimer’s. This leads us back to exercise. For most of us, exercise is a stress reducer. It’s all intertwined.
We can’t compartmentalize our bodies into separate, unrelated parts. Lifestyle matters in how we age. Yes, genetics and many other factors that we cannot change matter, as well. But doing what we can in order to live healthier lives seems to be one sure way to tip the odds a bit in our favor.
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Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver having spent over two decades caring for a total of seven elders. She is a longtime newspaper columnist and the author of “Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories,” as well as a contributor to several additional books on caregiving and dementia. Her websites can be accessed at www.mindingourelders.com. Follow Carol on Twitter @mindingourelder and on Facebook Minding Our Elders.
Published On: May 19, 2016