With dementia on the rise, it’s time to get up and move

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Sabrina Almeida

Can physical exercise reduce the risk of developing dementia? The answer deserves careful consideration. While we are well aware of the physical health benefits of being active, not so much its positive effects on our mental well-being. I’m not talking about elevated mood here or depression, although the latter can lead to cognitive decline.

Several studies show a connection between physical fitness and mental health. As a result, scientists are saying that physical activity might help reduce and prevent the progression of cognitive diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s. With dementia on the rise, it’s time we sit up, take notice and keep moving. Despite the controversy surrounding this premise and no overwhelmingly conclusive evidence, being active couldn’t hurt.

Dementia is no longer a silent epidemic. The National Center for Biotechnology Information says 74.7 million people will be demented by 2030, with USA projected to record about 7.1 million by 2025. Canadian reports suggest the number of people living with dementia in our country will grow to 1.4 million by 2031. A similar report published by the Alzheimer’s and Related Disorders Society of India estimated 4.1 million people were suffering from it in 2017, the second highest the world. This number was expected to double by 2035 in the Indian subcontinent.

If the above numbers are startling, the news that around 25% of cases remain undiagnosed is even more dire. A friend recently shared how his mother tried to hide his dad’s declining cognitive abilities from the family… till the frequent forgetfulness could no longer be disguised. He is not alone. Many of us have at least one family member with dementia with few openly admitting it.
Now healthcare professionals are trying to raise awareness of the negative consequences of a sedentary lifestyle on our cognitive and motor abilities in a bid to control the dementia epidemic. While there is no real way to prevent, cure or stop the progression of the condition, medical research is optimistic about physical activity as a form of prevention and treatment. Encouraged no doubt by some reports that activity programs like Cycling Without Age have shown positive results with regard to reducing aggression and improving mood in dementia patients.

To understand the recent push for physical fitness in regard to dementia, it is important to first consider the risk factors. Heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure all increase our risk of developing dementia. We don’t need to be reminded of the importance of exercise in combating or controlling these conditions. That’s the simplest explanation for it.
Some studies have also found that people who exercise experience a slower loss of brain tissue with age, another cause of dementia. It is believed that exercise increases the flow of blood to the brain as well as stimulates nerve cell growth and survival which could postpone cognitive decline.

Suggested aerobic activities such as brisk walking, dancing, jogging, bicycling and swimming are definitely worth the effort, irrespective of the continued debate on the subject. Resistance or weight training and flexibility or balance exercises should also be included in the general physical health routine.

Dementia Australia says people afflicted with this condition should continue to exercise. In addition to physical benefits, it improves mood, helps establish a normal day-night routine and increases social participation. It also helps in reducing stress, depression and isolation, which are commonly experienced by people living with dementia. Furthermore, repetitive activities like walking on a treadmill or using an exercise bike which don’t involve decision making or remembering what to do next can help reduce the anxiety they experience.

Gardening, dancing, swimming, tai chi and seated exercises are also considered beneficial.

The UK Alzheimer’s Society suggests simple movements for those in the later stages like shuffling along the bed in a seated position, changing position from sitting to standing and sitting in a different chair at each meal during the day.

The desire and motivation to exercise wanes as we age. It helps to choose activities that you would enjoy. And the secret for success is to think of it as an ‘activity’ not exercise. Walking is considered one of the safest ways to start. Of course, you should always consult your doctor as to what is good for your physical condition before beginning any exercise program.

So, let’s keep moving to enjoy quality of life!

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