Alzheimer’s and Dementia Prevention: Physical and Mental Activity
Alzheimer’s and dementia are concerning diagnoses that present opportunities for prevention at all ages including middle-aged and older adults. The brain and systems of the body work together like a computer program to ensure that the machine, we call our body, runs well.
Changes to the body’s programming—meaning the diagnosis of chronic health diseases in middle age and age-related effects—can result in body systems starting to rust or break down like a car. This internal rusting or body parts wearing out can result in a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or dementia.
By learning the tips in this article you can initiate changes to age positively. You can also share this information with your family, friends, and loved ones to help them improve their health and well-being.
Research confirms that memory issues, also called cognitive impairment, begin ten to twenty years before signs of memory loss are noticed. Being diagnosed with one or more chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes can also contribute to a diagnosis of dementia.
The Central Nervous System and the Brain
The central nervous system works with the brain to regulate cognitive function, activity, and communication between cells. Learning about how age-related changes affect the central nervous system is one step you can take to prevent a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or dementia.
If you’re not familiar with the signs and symptoms of dementia and memory loss you or a loved one might be showing early signs and be unaware of the importance of seeing a doctor. 50% of older adults with dementia are undiagnosed.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, 1 in 10 Americans over the age of 65, 14% of people age 71, and 32% of persons over age 85 have Alzheimer’s Dementia. This means that 1 in 3 older adults die with some form of dementia. (1) The statistics are sobering.
Physical and Mental Signs of Dementia
The initial indications that dementia is present are both physical and cognitive. All changes begin in the brain. Vascular dementia results from chronic diseases related to the heart, kidneys, and circulatory system.
Walking and balance are affected by the central nervous system (CNS) which experiences breakdowns in persons with dementia. The brain and the spinal cord do not communicate as well; nor do nerves and muscles.
The result of central nervous difficulties are problems with balance, walking, thinking, memory, depression, and sleeping. These are early signs of dementia or might be indications of Parkinson’s disease or another movement disorder. If you are experiencing any changes in your physical ability see a doctor.
Changes in the Brain Affect Balance and Walking
According to Clinical Nursing Times, (2) “by the age of 90, brain mass decreases by around 11% compared with individuals in their 50’s.” Brain mass decreases, loss of neurons, and gaps in communication between neurons negatively affect physical abilities, thinking, memory, communication, and problem-solving.
One of the earliest signs of cognitive impairment is an inability to manage finances or difficulty performing mathematical functions. Physical symptoms related to walking and balance are also early signs.
“Around 35% of people over age 70 have gait-related problems”. (2) Gait problems mean the physical ability to place one foot in front of the other and walk in an even and balanced manner. The brain and the central nervous system affect balance and the ability to walk.
Having good balance and walking frequently are complex functions managed by the central nervous system. Similar to balance and walking, thinking and memory skills rely on the central nervous system to work effectively.
A study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society (3) confirms that “poorer physical performance was associated with greater risk of all-cause dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease. Slow gait predicts cognitive impairment and dementia.”
Alzheimer’s and Dementia Prevention Through Positive Aging
The term positive aging describes actions that a person can take at any time in life to remain engaged mentally, physically, and socially. By strengthening the abilities supported by the central nervous system like balance and walking, the brain receives the stimulation necessary to prevent a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or dementia and manage other health concerns like high blood pressure or diabetes.
What actions do you take daily to support your physical and brain health? It can be tempting to sit in front of a computer or television all day. Activities to engage the brain like puzzles, reading, problem-solving, and socializing with friends and family are important. Social isolation can lead to feelings of depression and anxiety that contribute to cognitive losses.
Simple activities like walking outside or in your home, apartment community, or a mall if the weather is poor are all great for the brain. You can also consider joining a recreation center or gym that may have classes and training.
In addition to walking, having good balance is important to avoid falls and broken bones like wrist or hip fractures that can have a permanent impact on your ability to get around. Falls that result in a fracture are the number one reason that older adults leave their homes to live in a care community. If staying at home is a priority, increasing your level of physical activity can help achieve this goal.
If you want to become more active and don’t know where to start, first see your doctor. It’s important to make certain there are no risks to exercise based on health conditions or prior injuries.
The doctor can prescribe a physical and occupational therapy evaluation. Therapists in a clinic or who visit the home can prescribe daily exercises to improve flexibility, balance, and strength.
Take the Next Step Toward Fitness
After a visit with your doctor to approve physical activity, here are some suggestions:
- Invite a friend or take your spouse to an exercise class at a fitness center
- Watch online exercise videos, there are physical therapists who demonstrate exercises for seniors that are great for balance and strength
- If getting out of the home is difficult, find and participate in a sit and be fit class on television
Senior recreation centers and fitness centers have trainers available who can show you strengthening exercises and how to use the equipment. Fitness centers also offer day passes to allow you to try out classes and equipment to make certain the center is a good match for your needs.
And if getting out of the home is difficult, bring exercise into your home. Consider a piece of exercise equipment, small hand-held weights, and rubber bands so you can create a daily exercise routine of your own.
Still undecided about taking the leap to join a fitness center, but interested in walking and balance? Here is a link from the National Health Service UK that shows simple balance exercises.
Physical Activity Benefits the Brain
Exercise contributes positively to the central nervous system skills of thinking and memory in a number of ways. Cardiac workouts increase blood circulation throughout the body and strengthen the lungs. Learning new exercises and how to use exercises equipment fires up the part of your brain that relates to gaining new knowledge versus using information already known.
And who knows, you might make a few friends at the fitness center. Socialization is a benefit of exercising with others. You may soon find yourself in a hiking group or learning to play tennis, golf, or ski. It’s never too late to invest time in healthy activities.
Take the first step today toward positive aging and Alzheimer’s and dementia prevention. You’ll soon be one step closer to purposefully planning to live an active and vital life in your later years.
(1) Alzheimer’s Association. “2018 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures,” Alzheimers Dement 2018. 14(3) 367-429. P 19. https://www.alz.org/media/Documents/facts-and-figures-2018-r.pdf
(2) Knight J. and Nigam Y. (2017) Anatomy and physiology of ageing 5: the nervous system. Nursing Times (online); 113.6, 55-58, https://www.nursingtimes.net/roles/older-people-0nurses/anatomy-and-physiology-of-ageing-5-the-nervous-system/7018342.article
(3) Bullain, S.S., et al., “Sound Body Sound Mind? Physical Performance and the Risk of Dementia in the Oldest-Old: the 90+ Study,” J Am Geriatr Soc 64:1408-1415, 2016. Doi: 10.1111/jgs.14224.
© 2018, 2021 Pamela D. Wilson, All Rights Reserved.
Pamela D. Wilson, MS, BS/BA, CG, CSA is a national caregiving expert, advocate, and speaker. More than 20 years of experience as a court-appointed guardian, power of attorney, and care manager serve as Wilson’s platform to increase awareness of caregiving as an essential role in life. She is a caregiving speaker and consultant who designs and offers on-site and virtual caregiver education and awareness programs and courses, leads caregiver support groups, offers individual eldercare consultations for aging adults and family caregivers. Wilson hosts and produces The Caring Generation® podcast, is the author of the book The Caregiving Trap and is active on social media.