Dementia: Training the Brain and the Body

Most of us know that exercise is good for us.

Magazines, newspapers and TV programs constantly remind us that regular exercise can protect against obesity and any number of chronic diseases including hypertension, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. But did you know that it may also help protect the brain from dementia as we grow older?

In Australia, dementia is the third leading cause of death after heart disease and cancer and with our ageing population the incidence is rising. Films like ‘Still Alice’ featuring an accurate portrayal (for some) with the confusion and cognitive decline of dementia by Julianne Moore, have highlighted this condition. And it’s about time, for too long dementia has been a bit of a Cinderella condition, under-researched and under-funded.

Dementia is no respecter of intelligence or talent. It can affect anyone, with high profile people including Ronald Reagan, Rita Hayworth and AC/DC’s legendary guitarist Malcolm Young. The suicide of the late great Robin Williams was believed to have been, at least in some part, triggered by his diagnosis.

Prevention not cure

Sadly, there is still no cure for dementia. Although it may be possible to slow the progress of the disease with medical treatments, lifestyle measures and by training the brain and the body, our best chance of beating this disease is by protecting ourselves against it.

Regular physical activity has been shown to reduce the risk of cognitive decline and protect against Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. The problem is that often once people retire, they lose a sense of purpose and incentive to get involved in exercise. More and more grandparents need to help care for their grandchildren, which may leave them simply too busy and exhausted to fit in a session at the gym. Chronic conditions like arthritis, COPD and heart disease can make it even more tricky to exercise regularly.

In research exercising 3 times a week was associated with significantly lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s, so it really matters. The good news is that you don’t have to run a marathon or go for the burn. Even modest levels of physical exercise are associated with delayed onset of dementia and experiments have confirmed that a conditioning program improves higher-order cognitive function. Walking, taking the stairs instead of the lift, playing chasing games or enjoying sport with grandchildren and even hitting the dance floor can all help increase levels of fitness.

Fit legs and a fit brain

However, just being generally active and boosting aerobic fitness may not be enough to get optimum benefit. It’s important to also throw some resistance and strength training into the mix.

Building muscle mass is not just about getting a ripped bod or looking good in swimwear.

Studies have shown that people with stronger leg muscles have better mental function as they grow older. A team from King’s College London found that when it came to cognitive ageing, leg strength was the factor that had the single biggest impact. They said

“Other factors such as heart health were also important, but the link with leg strength remained even after we accounted for these. We think leg strength is a marker of the kind of physical activity that is good for your brain.”

So by training our bodies we can also boost our brain health. Resistance training doesn’t have to involve expensive equipment, working with your own body weight is an excellent way of building strength and increasing power.

If you’re inspired to increase your resilience to dementia, be creative when you take your grand kids to the park. Instead of reading the newspaper on a bench, make use of the play equipment too. Try simple step-ups, dips and standing push-ups to work your body.

Squatting exercises will increase hip flexibility and improve both your mobility and your ability to get up from a seated position. Remember to hold onto a chair for stability if you’re a little wobbly at first.

When you’re confident, move onto a half wall sit for a few seconds and gradually increase the time you can hold it, you’ll be amazed how quickly your strength and balance improve.

It’s never too late

The truth is that exercise training principles apply whether you’re 16 or 65. It’s not just about health, it’s about being fit for life. Resistance training helps maintain healthy bone mass and prevent muscle loss as you age. It can ensure that you are able to continue to perform everyday activities like climbing stairs, getting out of the bath or standing up from an armchair with ease. Yes, it can protect against dementia, but it can also help you stay physically able and independent so that you continue to live life to the full.

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