As our population continues to grow in the 70 and older demographic, there has been a concurrent increase in the number of people affected by Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. If you have had a friend or family member afflicted with cognitive decline, you understand how devastating it can be to both the affected and those who care for them.
Fortunately, conditions which affect cognition are being aggressively studied. The hope is to find new and novel ways to treat the disease, or at the very least, to slow its progression.
According to the Journal of Neurology in 2015, “Physical exercise is a powerful instrument for slowing the decline in physical and cognitive function in Alzheimer’s patients. Reductions in depressive symptoms and even mortality have been reported in dementia patients involved in physical exercise programs. Improvements in cognitive function were associated with improvements in postural and motor functions in exercise trials.”
To learn more about the cognitive benefits of exercise, I spoke to Dr. Sarah Wolf, DO. Dr. Wolf is a board-certified internal medicine physician who treats patients at Munson Health Care Little Traverse Primary Care in Harbor Springs.
Have there been recent findings which correlate improved cognitive performance with increased physical activity in adults over 60? A 2017, systematic review revealed the association between sedentary behavior and lower cognitive performance. Further research is needed on this topic but appears that limiting sedentary time helps achieve healthy cognitive aging.
What types of cognitive changes have been observed? One leading thought is that physical activity enhances the blood flow to brain cells (neurons). Regular exercise has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, and other mood disorders, including depression, which are at times associated with dementia. One study found that exercise improved both physical and psychological quality of life.
Is there a specific amount of daily or weekly exercise you recommend to your patients? I recommend aerobic exercise, muscle strengthening, flexibility and balance training spread out throughout the week. The minimum recommended is 30 minutes of aerobic exercise five days per week. Further, I recommend muscle strengthening activities at least 2 non-consecutive days per week. Balance exercise (such as Tai Chi) is important, as it improves stability and prevents falls.
In your practice, which diseases or conditions are especially improved by regular physical activity? The research is conclusive that people who regularly exercise report better overall health, lower health care expenditures, and fewer mobility issues. Further, exercise appears to be associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, certain types of cancer, obesity, falls, mood disorders, chronic pain, constipation, and sleep disorders.
If a patient has never exercised regularly, what suggestions do you have for them once they have been cleared by their physician? Start with just increasing your activity with whatever you enjoy. Especially this time of year in Northern Michigan there is so much to do, so start with what you enjoy to hopefully make doing activity a habit. It is never too late to become physically active. Even starting at age 85 has been shown to improve quality of life. Even “leisure time” physical activity may decrease heart attack risk.