Elder Journal: A Strong Body for a Stronger Memory

Elder Journal   July 2003
By Paul Takayanagi
A Strong Body for a Stronger Memory

The importance of being physically fit and maintaining memory skills is becoming more apparent through numerous studies nationwide.  There are a number of reasons why researchers are correlating stronger memory with a strong body.  A study by the MacArthur Foundation found that exercise had a profound effect on the brains of adult subjects of a major research project.  The study found that an increase in exercise had a simultaneous increase in chemical substances in the brain that promotes new brain cell growth.  The findings suggested that exercise enhances memory function.  Another national study found that older people who have a regular exercise routine do better on memory tasks.  The same study found that immediately after exercising, people are able to learn and remember new information more effectively than if they were sedentary.

Exercise increases the blood flow of the entire body and gives your brain more oxygen and other important nutrients.  In addition, research has shown that increased exercise promotes feelings of well-being and can reduce depressive feelings in older people.  Endorphins, the brain’s natural “feel good” chemicals, are released when you exercise.  This is important because people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease and their caregivers often report feelings of depression in their daily lives.  A regular exercise program for both persons with dementia and their caregivers can help to alleviate or reduce these feelings.  Studies have also shown a correlation between feelings of depression and cognitive dysfunction.  Sometimes, what appears to be dementia is actually acute depression.  This is why it is imperative for a person to be clinically assessed for depression who has recently begun to display dementia symptoms.

It is important for every person who has dementia to participate in some form of physical exercise no matter what stage of the disease they are experiencing.  Here are some real life examples of persons in each stage of Alzheimer’s Disease, early, moderate and late, and their exercise programs.

Early Stage Exercise Program

June is a young and vibrant 60 years old.  She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease one year ago.  An athletic person by nature, she has always enjoyed swimming, walking and gardening.   She doesn’t drive anymore but she is able to get a ride to the local pool with a friend and regularly swims 20 or more laps each time.  She also meets with a neighbor every other day to walk five miles.  She gardens every day and this, more than any other activity, is what she derives much satisfaction from doing.  She says about gardening, “It keeps me young to be outside in the fresh air, getting physical exercise weeding, pruning and other tasks and then seeing the beauty of the garden every single day.”  June intends to keep swimming, walking and gardening as long as she is able to and believes this will be for quite some time.  June says, “There are days when I seem to be more forgetful than others and after I exercise, whatever I was trying to remember just comes to me!  It’s like a little miracle!”

Moderate Stage Exercise Program

Mitchell is in the moderate stages of Alzheimer’s Disease.  He is 71 years old and was diagnosed three years ago.  His family believes that regular exercise has helped him to maintain his cognitive skills and physical abilities longer.  Every day, he takes a short walk to a local “walking track” near his home.  He walks 10 laps and then returns home.  For now, he has not had any issues with becoming lost between his home and the track because he has gone to the track for more than 20 years.  Recently, his daughter-in-law, an animal shelter volunteer, found an older, stable dog to keep Mitchell company while his wife works.  The dog, Mandy, accompanies Mitchell to the track and sits patiently while he laps the track.  She has learned where “home” is and helps to guide Mitchell there.  When the time comes that Mitchell displays increased memory problems and the possibility of becoming lost in familiar surroundings, his family has agreed that someone will accompany Mitchell and Mandy to the track every day so that he can continue to get the exercise that is so important to his overall health.  Besides Mitchell says, “I love walking.  I enjoy it so much.”

Late Stage Exercise Program

Agnes is an 85 year old woman living with her grandson and his family.  She attends a local adult day health care center in her community every weekday.  At the center, she receives regular supervised exercise and physical therapy for arthritis in her back and knees.  The center has a very experienced activity director who has learned how to incorporate exercise into almost every activity they do at the center.  Participants even get exercise, with supervision, helping to move chairs back and forth across the room for different activities like lunch or crafts.  Twice a week, a professional fitness teacher comes to the center to give hour long exercise programs that are made appropriate for every level of ability of the participants in the program.  Agnes’ family believes that her enrollment in the adult day center and the exercise combined with the physical therapy she receives there has helped to maintain her longer in their home.  “She is able to stand up and walk across the room on her own now that she is in the program” her grandson says.  “Before she was in the program she was having trouble just standing up from a chair.”  This underscores the importance of having physical therapy for persons in the later stages of dementia which is sometimes questioned by health care and insurance professionals.  “We can keep her at home for longer when she is physically more able to do things for herself” her grandson shares.

It is clear that a regular exercise program is valuable to every person with dementia.  Exercise is also important to caregivers who may feel that they are feeling too stressed out for a physical fitness program.  On the contrary, exercise helps to alleviate stress and enables caregivers to feel like they are “taking care of themselves while caring for someone else.”  Regular exercise should be a part of every “self care program” as well as “elder care program.”  This summer, if you haven’t already, why not start even the most basic exercise program, walking for a half hour in your neighborhood four times a week with a friend or neighbor?  It could be one of the best things you ever did for your body and your memory! 

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