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Gotta’ Run: Beating dementia with exercise, round 2

It’s common that I get a few comments each week from those who aren’t serious runners but read this column anyway. The quantity of those comments went up this week, largely I think because each of us have occasional thoughts about getting older and drifting into cognitive decline. Of course, we are always hoping that it doesn’t happen, but hope just isn’t good enough. Last week’s column addressed what we can do, and we will dig deeper this week.

Dr. Jonathan Graff-Radford from the Mayo Clinic explained that the terms dementia and Alzheimer’s are often used interchangeably, but they actually have very different meanings. Dementia is not a specific disease. It’s an overall term, sometimes referred to as an umbrella which describes a wide range of symptoms. These symptoms impact a person’s ability to perform everyday activities independently. Common symptoms include:

  • A decline in memory
  • Changes in thinking skills
  • Poor judgment and reasoning skills
  • Decreased focus and attention
  • Changes in language and communication skills

Alzheimer’s disease is one type of dementia, but it is not the only one. There are many different types and causes of dementia.

Any exercise that leaves the person slightly breathless has brain benefits for those age 50 and over. With 39 clinical trials backing this claim, we should all pay attention. Although less research has been done with healthy older people, there is some evidence to show older people who begin exercising late in life can also reduce their risk of dementia if they make it a regular habit. In a study of 716 people with an average age of 82 years, people who were in the bottom 10% in terms of amount of daily physical activity were more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease as those in the top 10%.

A literature review found 27 studies looking at the effect of physical activity on brain function in people over 60 years of age. In 26 of the studies there was a clear link between physical activity levels and cognitive performance, suggesting that exercise appears to be an effective way to reduce cognitive decline in later life.

Aerobic exercise has also been shown to affect the brains of healthy older people. In a modest-sized controlled trial, one year of aerobic exercise resulted in a small increase in the size of the hippocampus (the key brain area involved in memory), which was the equivalent of reversing one to two years of age-related shrinkage. A study of 638 people in Scotland that asked participants about their activity levels found those who were physically active at age 70 experienced less brain shrinkage over three years than those who were not.

The Alzheimer’s Association says to consider physical activities that may also be mentally or socially engaging, such as walking with a friend, taking a dance class, joining an exercise group or golfing. Incorporate any enjoyable activity for the greater likelihood of continued engagement. For example, bike riding, gardening or walking the dog will likely provide positive results. As we generally tell folks of any age who are just beginning, ease into the activity slowly and steadily.    

Adopting healthy exercise habits today will allow us to enjoy the lifelong benefits of regular physical activity. However, it’s never too late to start — making healthy choices at any age is beneficial to your well-being. Always consult your doctor before starting any new exercise program if you think there are any issues.

I’m a believer in big exercise, but that isn’t what’s required here. Just get moving. My bet is the mental and physical benefits experienced early in the effort will inspire more time and commitment. As I usually suggest, early morning exercise that starts the day provides a boost that lingers for hours. But evening exercise, if that’s your preference, works too.

I mentioned last week that the new Alzheimer’s drug, Biogen’s Aduhelm is available and has good early results. Yet the projected cost is about $56,000 per year.

If you aren’t already exercising regularly, all this is yet another good reason to start.

Look for more information on the Shiloh Missions 5K in Faith on July 3 and other upcoming events at www.salisburyrowanrunners.org .

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