Many neuroscientists are now convinced that the brain is capable of superior performance even into the 10th decade and beyond. Isn't that exciting news? If the brain remains healthy and free from disease it can continue to function normally for as long as we live. According to Mahoney and Restak (1998), nerve cells should remain alive and maintain the capability of forming new connections and networks throughout life. Maintaining brain health and enhancing lifelong learning is a vital part of aging and quality of life. Cognition is a combination of mental processes that includes the ability to learn new things, intuition, judgment, language, and remembering. The Center of Disease control is now promoting The Healthy Brain Initiative to address the growing awareness of the significant health, social, and economic burdens associated with cognitive decline in our aging population. You can google the Center of Disease Control's Healthy Brain Initiative to learn more.
Diminished cognitive health from mild cognitive decline (that "hereafter syndrome" where an individual walks into a room and wonders "what did I come here after?") to more serious dementia can have profound implications on overall health and well-being.
Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia among older adults. Alzheimer's can affect a person's ability to carry out daily activities by attacking areas of the brain that process information and store memory. Alzheimer's usually begins after the age of 60 and the risk increases significantly with age. About 5% of men and women ages 65 to 74 have Alzheimer's disease and nearly half of those 85 and older may have the disease. An estimated 5 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease. This number has doubled since 1980 and is expected to be as high as 13.4 million by 2050. (www.cdc.gov/ aging/healthybrain/alzheimers). In 1900 the average American could expect to live to age 47. Average life expectancy for men is now 81 years and for women 83 years. The average 75 year old suffers from three chronic medical conditions and takes five prescription medicines. Among those over 65 most suffer from hypertension; more than two-thirds are overweight; and nearly 20 percent have diabetes, which triples the chance of developing heart disease.
It has become essential that purposeful choices be made to live through those golden years with a healthy body and mind (Ratey, 2008). Those choices should include regular exercise, a healthy diet (and watch those serving sizes), an active social life (volunteerism is an integral part), mental stimulation (read a book, take a class, play a game), and spiritual growth.
Scientists do not yet fully understand what causes Alzheimer's disease but there is more and more research supporting that high blood pressure, high cholesterol, a sedentary lifestyle, obesity, and family history are all risk factors for the disease. What affects the body affects the brain! What is bad for the body is bad for the brain and what is good for the body is good for the brain (Medina, 2008). Exercise, healthy food choices, not smoking, and moderate alcohol consumption reduces risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes and the risk for age-related neurogenetive disorders. The mental and physical diseases that occur in old age are directly tied to the cardiovascular and metabolic systems. Those who have diabetes have a 65 percent higher risk of developing dementia Those with heart disease are at far greater risk of developing Alzheimer's, the most common form of dementia. Statistically, having diabetes gives you a 65 percent higher risk of developing dementia and high cholesterol increases the risk by 43 percent (Ratey, 2008).
Regular physical activity has been identified as one of the most important lifestyle choices that we can make to help in the prevention of alzheimer's and other forms of dementia. Thirty minutes of aerobic exercise stimulates the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that facilitates transmission of signals in the brain. BDNF also stimulates the growth of new cells in the hippocampus, which is the area of the brain that takes in new information and cross-references it with information stored in long-term memory. Ratey (2008) suggests that aerobic exercise is miracle-grow for the brain, fertilizing brain cells to keep them functioning and growing.
Walking, swimming, dancing, biking, stepping, rowing, group fitness activities like low impact aerobics and water aerobics are all excellent choices for aerobic activity. The American College of Sports Medicine and American Heart Association recently published the following Activity Guidelines for Age 65 and Better (www.acsm.org/AM/Template.cfm?):
Moderately intense aerobic exercise 30 minutes a day, five days a week
Vigorously intense exercise 20 minutes a day, three days a week
What's good for the body is good for the brain. Our bodies were designed to move.it truly is movement that matters in healthy aging. Take a walk, join an exercise class, go out dancing and you will taking steps toward a healthy brain!
Terry Eckmann, PhD
Minot State University
Mahoney, D. and Restak, R. (1998). The Longevity Strategy. John Wiley & Sons: New York.
Medina, J. (2008). Brain Rules. Pear Press. Seattle, Washington.
Ratey, J. (2008). SPARK. Little Brown and Company: New York.