Stay Fit to Stay Sharp

Healthnotes Newswire (June 15, 2006)—New research suggests that older people might be able to slow the loss of mental (cognitive) functioning and prevent dementia by staying physically active.

Dementia, a condition that worsens with time and is marked by memory loss and poor cognitive functioning, is one of the most common debilitating conditions of the elderly. The number of Americans with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia is in the millions and is increasing as the number of elderly in the population grows.

Genetic make-up is partly responsible for determining the rate at which people lose cognitive function and whether or not they will develop dementia, but lifestyle choices also play a role. In particular, studies have found that people who eat foods rich in antioxidants (from vegetables and fruits) and omega-3 fatty acids (from fish) might be protected against cognitive decline and dementia.

Mental exercise and activities that promote learning have been shown to delay the onset of dementia. Recent studies confirm that older people can improve their memory and problem-solving skills with practice and can stimulate new brain cell connections through mental and social activity.

Physical exercise has also been shown to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. “It may be because exercise expands blood vessels and delivers more oxygen to the brain,” said Susan Love, MD, a pioneer of the breast cancer advocacy movement. “There are so many benefits to regular exercise that it’s worth incorporating into your daily routine.”

The new study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, monitored the cognitive functioning of seniors 65 years and older for nearly six years. At the beginning of the study, none of the people had dementia, and they were scored on four physical function tests: ten-foot timed walk; chair-stand time (time needed to rise from a seated position in a chair to a standing position, repeated five times); standing balance; and grip strength in the dominant hand.

The researchers found that lower physical function scores at the beginning of the study predicted a faster rate of cognitive decline and an increased risk of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. People with low physical function scores were more than three times as likely to develop dementia as those with high physical function scores.

“The findings suggest that poor physical function may precede the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease and higher levels of physical function may be associated with a delayed onset,” the authors concluded. “If confirmed, this study might also help explain the association of physical exercise with a reduced risk of dementia, suggesting that exercise, by improving and maintaining physical function, might benefit cognitive function through a connection between the two.”

(Arch Intern Med 2006;166:1115–20)

Maureen Williams, ND, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Seattle, WA. She has a private practice in Quechee, VT, and does extensive work with traditional herbal medicine in Guatemala and Honduras. Dr. Williams is a regular contributor to Healthnotes Newswire.

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