Exercise May Help Seniors Prevent Dementia

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Medical science has not identified a clear cause of Alzheimer’s Disease. While changes in an aging brain seem to increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s, genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors all play a role.

Age itself does not cause dementia. About a third of people who are 85 or older are living with Alzheimer’s, but many people live well into their 90s without acquiring the disease. 

Guarding Against Dementia

Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common form of dementia in older adults. A growing body of evidence suggests the possibility of guarding against the disease. Research has identified smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity as factors that increase the risk of acquiring Alzheimer’s. People of all ages who stop smoking, maintain a healthy weight, and stay active will improve their chance of avoiding Alzheimer’s.

Since the causes of dementia are imperfectly understood, no strategy provides perfect protection, but heartening news stories suggest that early symptoms of Alzheimer’s can be reversed with diligent effort. Biomarkers in a 55-year-old Florida man were “telltale signs” of early Alzheimer’s disease. His neurologist recommended lifestyle changes that included a healthy diet, exercise, reducing stress and optimizing sleep.

The man took the advice to heart. He took a prescribed drug to control his blood sugar levels. He engaged in moderate exercise for 45 to 60 minutes a day. He did strength training three times a week. He avoided sugar, alcohol, and ultraprocessed foods.

In nine weeks, the man lost 21 pounds, replaced fat with muscle, and optimized his good and bad cholesterol levels. Even more impressively, he substantially reduced the markers that are associated with the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Reversing markers is not the same as reversing the disease after it takes hold, but it appears he greatly improved his odds of avoiding the damage that Alzheimer’s causes.

Tai Chi

Any form of exercise may help protect against dementia, but not all seniors are equally capable of exercising. Tai chi is a low-impact exercise that is well suited for most older adults.

While tai chi originated as a martial art, its slow movements have been adopted as a popular form of exercise. Although tai chi benefits people of all ages, it may be particularly beneficial for older adults with health problems that might hinder their ability to engage in more strenuous exercise.

Tai chi practitioners progress through a series of slow and gentle movements without pausing. They breathe deeply while focusing their attention on how their fluid motion makes their body feel. Done correctly, tai chi is a form of meditation as well as exercise.

Research has made “a compelling case for tai chi as an adjunct to standard medical treatment for the prevention and rehabilitation of many conditions commonly associated with age.” Tai chi improves muscle strength, flexibility, and balance. It may also have aerobic benefits. 

Cognitive Tai Chi

A recent study funded by the National Institute on Aging focused on participants with mild cognitive impairments who were 65 or older. Participants were divided into three groups. One group performed traditional stretching exercises. The second performed tai chi. The third group did tai chi while performing cognitive exercises, such as spelling words forward and backward.

The groups exercised at home three times a week with virtual supervision. After six months, both tai chi groups had better scores on walking tests than the group that performed stretching exercises. 

While both groups of tai chi practitioners had better cognitive test results than participants who only did stretching exercises, the group that performed cognitive exercises during tai chi had test scores that were twice as high as those who did tai chi alone. The researchers view the findings “as promising evidence that tai chi, especially the cognitively enhanced version, can be an affordable intervention option for people with mild cognitive impairment.” 

Tai chi movements are easy to learn. Older adults who join with others in a tai chi class can gain the additional benefit of making new social contacts. Seniors who prefer to exercise at home can take an online class or watch one of many instructional videos on YouTube that are geared toward older adults.

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