Senior Fitness

By James Riley

Recent survey research indicates that the two primary physical concerns for seniors are a fear of falling and dementia. This column has previously focused on fall prevention, so let’s talk about dementia.

Dementia, whether it be heart-related dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, slowly steals the ability to remember and reason, and it affects the personality in unfavorable ways. More than six million people in the U.S. suffer from some type of dementia and the number is growing as our senior citizen cohort grows larger.

Risk Factors for dementia include age and genetic links.

Age is the greatest risk factor. The longer we live, the more likely we are to get dementia. Age is also a factor for many other chronic diseases, such as cancer, arthritis, heart disease and stroke. We can do things to reduce our risks of those chronic diseases but their likelihood still increases as we age.

Alzheimer’s often exhibits a genetic link that runs in families, which increases the odds of developing the disease. Heart disease , which may cause heart-related dementia, may also be familial.

Unfortunately we can’t opt for new parents once we’ve been born. We can’t do much about age and familial risk factors, but we can do things that may prevent dementia or at least delay the onset or severity of it.

Lifestyle habits that may reduce the risk of dementia include diet, exercise and lifelong learning.

Abstain or use alcohol moderately. A recent study published in “The Lancet Public Health” indicated a primary contributor to dementia is alcohol abuse. Some 57,000 people were included in a study in France, and 57 percent of those who experienced early-onset dementia were heavy drinkers. Other studies have also suggested that alcohol abuse is a major risk factor for dementia.

It also helps to exercise regularly. If you’ve been exercising throughout adulthood or at least getting into shape now you are probably enhancing your brain health as well as the health of the rest of your body.

While no direct causation has been confirmed between exercise and brain health, the strength and consistency of a correlational relationship between brain health and fitness is evident in many studies.

This consistent relationship has resulted in recommendations from health authorities to perform moderate to intense exercise for brain health. It is believed that exercise improves circulation, bringing increased blood flow to the brain and improving its function.

It also helps to learn new things. The brain doesn’t know how old it is and always wants to learn.

Learning or improving skills or considering a different idea promotes the development of new cognitive networks, increasing mental capacity and acuity.

Listen to classical music, learn a new game, take art or music lessons, or tackle any challenge that requires your creative and analytical skills. Better yet, try a physical activity that challenges your mind and body such as taking up a new sport, yoga, or ballroom dance.

It’s easy to sit and watch TV or play on the computer to occupy the hours. The media business knows how to attract your attention and occupy your brain with mindless routines.

Refuse to let such routines become dominant in your daily life. Stimulate the brain and try something different. Remember, the brain doesn’t know how old it is; it just wants to learn.

Eat a healthy diet, based on a variety of fruits, vegetables, healthy fats and protein and grains. Drink plenty of water so the brain and the rest of your body will be well nourished and hydrated.

Maintaining a healthy brain is really about leading an active and healthy lifestyle. Simple put, it’s about developing good habits. First we create our habits, then our habits create us. It’s never too late to improve health habits.