While regular physical activity has long been regarded as an important component of healthy aging, its impact on mental health has remained less explored -- until now. Several new studies on the role of exercise for the prevention of mental decline in older adults have been presented at this year's Alzheimer's Association International Conference (AAIC) in Vancouver, Canada.
For these studies, researchers from the United States, Canada and Japan conducted six to 12 month clinical trials with focus on potential benefits of different types of exercising, including weight lifting, aerobics and balance-stretching training, for maintaining cognitive abilities at old age.
The results showed that even low-impact activities such as walking can help improve memory and other mental functions. What's most striking is that the human brain seems to be able to grow and develop even late in life if sufficiently stimulated, not only by staying mentally active but physically as well.
Strength training, in particular, had positive effects on attention and memory and other higher brain functions. One of the studies from the University of British Columbia, Canada, found that participants with higher levels of intellect, and perhaps education, reaped the most benefits.
The scientists involved in the respective studies agreed that their findings are preliminary at best at this point in time. "Very little is understood regarding the molecular processes that contribute to enhanced brain health with exercise, or the impact that greater brain volume has on cognitive function," said Dr. Kirk Erickson of the University of Pittsburgh, who worked on one of the studies. But he also pointed to some immediate implications. "Our findings suggest that the aging brain remains modifiable, and that sedentary older adults can benefit from starting a moderate walking regimen," he said.
Walking, not for the purpose of exercising but as a normal daily function, was the subject of another study presented at the conference. It found that older people's slower gait could also be a symptom for mental decline. A reduced pace has always been considered as a natural part of aging. But the results of this study seem to indicate that being less swift and steady on one's feet may be a sign that cognitive functions are suffering as well.
This is potentially a new perspective for health care professionals who treat older patients with mental health issues. "People who are focused on cognition largely never watch people move," said Dr. Stephanie Studenski, a geriatrician at the University of Pittsburgh who did not take part in the study, in an interview with the New York Times. "The tests are all done sitting down."
Simply by observing how older people walk could provide doctors with an additional tool for diagnosing impairments such as Alzheimer's disease.
Although the studies reported at the conference have yet to undergo peer reviews before being released for publication, they have already generated a considerable buzz in the medical community and beyond. The AAIC is the world's largest of its kind and is sponsored by the Alzheimer's Association, the world's leading health organization in Alzheimer care, support and research.
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book "The Healthy Diner - How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun"®, which is available on her blog, "Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D." (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.