Growing Muscles May Prevent Shrinking Brains for Seniors

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Spending a few extra minutes on the treadmill may be more beneficial for a senior's brain than tackling a daily crossword.

Elders who exercise regularly have significantly less brain shrinkage than those who lead more idle lives, according to researchers from the University of Edinburgh. Surprisingly, the same could not be said for seniors with dynamic social lives, or those who participated in mentally engaging activities.

"People in their seventies who participated in more physical exercise, including walking several times a week, had less brain shrinkage and other signs of aging in the brain than those who were less physically active," study author Alan Gow, Ph.D., said in a press release. "On the other hand, our study showed no real benefit to participating in mentally and socially stimulating activities on brain size."

For three years, scientists tracked the daily physical and mental undertakings of hundreds of adults in their early seventies.

They examined MRI scans of the seniors' brains to determine how certain activities impacted the rate of age-related brain changes, such as atrophy and white matter lesions (clusters of dead dells that can disrupt mental functioning). Physically active seniors had larger brains with fewer lesions.

The link between physical fitness and mental functioning in the elderly has garnered a lot of attention from the medical community in recent years.

Several studies, presented at the 2012 Alzheimer's Association International Conference, indicated that seniors who walk more slowly and with shorter strides were more likely to have diminished cognitive capacity.

Researchers from the University of California, Irvine also found that elders who performed badly on certain tests of physical capability—grip strength, being able to get in and out of a chair, and walking—were more likely to have dementia.

Outside of the physical perks of elevated cardiovascular capacity, stronger bones, and better balance, working out also provides elders with a host of mental benefits.

Physical activity increases the blood flow to all areas of the body, the brain included. Research indicates that regular exercise may also help manage depression, increase concentration and reduce stress.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) encouraging a loved one to start with something as simple as a 30-minute walk several times a week can be helpful.

Senior's should gradually add additional endurance, flexibility,strength and balance exercises to ensure that they're getting a well-rounded workout.

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