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11/22/2018 12:23 EST | Updated 11/27/2018 20:34 EST

To Decrease Dementia Risk, Get Up And Moving No Matter Your Age

Constantly stimulating your brain through physical activity can effectively extend your years of good mental health.

By ParticipACTION's Flip Livingstone and exercise scientist Dr. Leigh Vanderloo

With Statistics Canada estimating there are more adults over the age of 65 than there are children under 14, brain-based diseases — such as dementia — are quickly becoming top-of-mind concerns. And if they're not, they should be.

It's time to start thinking very seriously about the direct impact this trend is going to have on all Canadians lives, as dementia is a disease that affects a lot more that just the individual suffering from the sickness.

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For example, a recent report projects that by 2031, close to 1.4-million Canadians will be affected by dementia, so the direct health care costs of roughly $16.6 billion will obviously have a very firsthand strain on the entire Canadian health care system. How will hospitals and treatment centres be able to function with so much money being devoted to only one disease?

Here's another thought: How many of our parents or grandparents will be a part of those 1.4 million? How many loved ones, friends or even co-workers?

Odds are, quite a few. But as a nation that prides itself on being forward-thinking and proactive when it comes to tackling change and issues facing our society as a whole, what are we going to do about it? It's on all of us to take up an initiative to combat not only dementia, but all cognitive and brain-based diseases. The kind that can rob of us, and our loved ones, of independence and the ability to live the lives we want.

We need to be more focused on physical activity as a way to help seniors.

There's a way to help prevent the progression and onset of these cognitive diseases and it doesn't cost a thing: increasing our physical activity. It's really that simple. Being active is a fun, effective and low-cost way to combat dementia and its devastating symptoms.

We know physical activity is good for our heart, bones and lungs, but we're not always mindful of how it affects, and in fact, can support, our brains. Canadians must be more aware of the facts behind brain-based diseases and the scientific connection between getting active and fighting their effects.

It can be as easy as going for more walks, doing yoga or hitting the local pool for some lane swim. Regardless of the type, we need to be more focused on physical activity as a way to help seniors be both physically — and mentally— fit.

The physical activity-dementia link

Let's not sugarcoat this: currently there is no magic pill to fully prevent, cure or stop the progression of dementia. So, over the last couple decades, many clinicians have been pushing for the inclusion of physical activity to become an integral part of the treatment for dementia.

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Look, we get it, Canadians can sometimes be reluctant to engage in health promotion efforts, especially without a feeling of instant self-gratification. But we have to look at the bigger health picture and rethink how we utilize physical activity as a way to combat mental illnesses. With the research behind the impact of brain-based diseases increasingly indicating the need to get out in front of this trend, now is the time for us to realize that physical activity really is the best way to deal with these illnesses.

Within the next 20 years, it's projected that more than one in four Canadians will be over the age of 65, with more than 60 per cent of the health care budget dedicated to the care of seniors. It's becoming more important than ever that older adults need to get moving — and that their friends and loved ones support and encourage them to be active.

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Physical activity is protective against the onset of dementia and slows its progression. The deterioration of the brain's prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, which play key roles in complex thinking and memory formation, is usually associated with dementia. Luckily, these two areas are very responsive to physical activity, and tend to be bigger in size among people with higher fitness levels. This means that by constantly stimulating your brain through physical activity, you can effectively extend your years of good mental health. This is good not only for you, but for the ones that love and care for you as well.

Research also shows that physical activity helps increase cognitive function, positive moods, physical function and fitness among individuals with dementia. Improved balance and increased ability to perform daily activities can also result from regular physical activity.

Whether it's in the pool, on a hiking path or in a park, encouraging seniors to be more active has never been more critical. The numbers and research behind the growing impact of these diseases are as clear-cut on as they could be: during your lifetime, someone you care about will be affected by dementia or other brain illnesses.

It's time for action and to get Canadians up and moving.

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