My Body is Trying to Protect Me, And That’s a Problem
By Randi Sherman and Danny Holstein
In the absence of regular exercise, the body, with some intention, manages resources to protect itself. For better or worse (often the latter), our bodies trade away quality of life for length of life.
Mother Nature and Our Bodies
In the effort to be efficient, our bodies attempt to use a minimum of energy and nutrients. It does this by shedding muscle mass and reducing circulatory system capacity to a minimum, essentially to economize and make the best use of what resources it has.
Stated a bit differently, our bodies trade off health for survival. It’s part of our physiology as humans. It’s our nature—Mother Nature, if you will.
But Mother Nature doesn’t care about our health or quality of life. Consider our elderly citizens in their frailty. Their lack of muscle mass leads to significantly reduced diets and caloric needs because that’s how our bodies work. But what does that infer for our brains and quality of life?
Similar to the reduced muscle mass and circulation in legs and arms, aging and a sedentary lifestyle lead directly to reduced brain mass and cranial vascular circulation.
Physical Activity Reduces The Risk of Dementia
Dementia can affect every aspect of life, both for you and your loved one. There are no two ways about it—it is devastating, heartbreaking, and there is no chance of a positive outcome.
The condition often takes hold and progresses quickly, leaving families struggling to come to grips with the illness and its consequences. However, it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. Reducing the risk of dementia in seniors can be accomplished through simple daily exercises and activities.
The Proven Benefits of Exercise
Getting sufficient exercise during middle-aged years has been shown to affect thinking and memory positively later in life. According to research compiled by the Alzheimer’s Society, regular exercise can significantly reduce the risk of developing dementia by approximately 30%. For Alzheimer’s dementia specifically, the benefits are even more significant, as studies show that exercise decreases the risk of developing the disease by a remarkable 45%!
In fact, one survey followed a group of 2,000 men for 35 years and found that out of five lifestyle factors—regular exercise, not smoking, moderate alcohol consumption, healthy body weight, and healthy diet—exercise had the greatest impact on reducing the risk of dementia. However, when the five factors were combined, the individuals surveyed were up to 60% less likely to develop dementia.
It’s clear that positive lifestyle choices can play a role in reducing the risk of dementia. However, the studies above focus mainly on exercise in middle-aged folks. So what does the research say about seniors who exercise?
Statistically speaking, the earlier in life you get into the habit of regular exercise, the better off you’re likely to be. But for seniors who engage in active lifestyles, there is evidence that exercise can also be beneficial. As it turns out, it’s never too late to start leading a healthier, more active lifestyle. Although these statistics aren’t quite as pointed and clear-cut as the ones for middle-aged folks, they still indicate that activity can positively impact seniors.
Seniors in the top 10 percentile of daily physical activity were found to be half as likely to develop Alzheimer’s as seniors in the bottom ten percentile. Moreover, physical activity was found to help improve brain function and cognitive performance. One study found that regular aerobic exercise helped seniors reverse age-related shrinkage of the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain associated with memory. It turns out that exercise provides a host of benefits for older individuals aside from just keeping them limber, spry, and physically engaged. Lowering the risk of dementia is just one of these positive outcomes.
How Activities Can Help Alzheimer’s
So what exercises and activities can help keep you and/or your loved ones healthy? Well, it’s whatever is enjoyable and sustainable for you. The research on the subject varies in its definitions of physical exercise and regular activity—but the rule of thumb seems to favor any aerobic exercise performed for a sustained period, typically between 20 and 30 minutes. This activity should be done several times a week for approximately a year in order to yield the best possible benefits.
When we think of ‘exercise,’ we may think of sports and other high-octane activities. But the kind of exercise we need as seniors are vastly different from the kind of exercise we need as young adults. Indeed, the kinds of exercise we are capable of performing are vastly different at these ages. You don’t have to be able to run a marathon to do regular exercise. For seniors, physical activity can be as simple as a brisk walk, an AquaFit class, cleaning the house, or even gardening. In this case, overextending yourself would be almost as bad as not exercising at all. It’s essential to understand your limitations and stay within them.
Other Activities to Try
But it’s not just physical activity that helps reduce a senior’s risk of developing dementia. Other leisure activities that engage the brain have also been shown to have incredible benefits for cognitive function. Reading, board games, and playing musical instruments can all help to lower an individual’s chances of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s later in life.
Dancing has the benefit of engaging both the body and the mind simultaneously, so if you love to dance, you’re off to a great start.
The more frequently seniors engaged their brains through participation in leisure activities, the less likely they were to develop dementia compared to those who participated less or not at all. It helped improve cognitive reserve: that is, it helped them retain memory and brain function, which are the first things to go as dementia develops.
The long and short of it is that the more active seniors are, both mentally and physically, the less statistically likely they are to develop Alzheimer’s and dementia. Although this is not a guarantee that your loved one will not be affected by dementia, these simple, proactive activities are well worth the effort to lower their risk.