Old Hat: Exercise and the Aging Process

By Karin Krisher

The aging process is a topic of worn-out discussion. We talk about aging joints, hearts, lungs, livers. We talk about aging parents, pets, friends, and minds. We talk about how to improve the aging process, and wishfully discuss how to slow it down. But what if our conversation changed direction? Instead of aging process generating ways to merely hold onto the youth we once had, what if we took it a step further, and offered patients some hope of actually improving themselves as the aging process carries onward?

That conversation might go something like this:

“Exercise.”

Even better than the simplicity of this conversation? You don’t have to be the first one to have it. Nearly 33 percent of patients who saw a doctor last year said that doctor told them to exercise—in 2000 this figure was only 23 percent, according to the CDC.

Surprisingly, significant increases in instances of this advice were reported in patients 85 and older. The changing tides of conversation could be the result of mounting evidence that exercise can work wonders for not only the bodies, but also the brains of the elderly. In a review of over 100 cognition-related studies, researchers at the University of Iowa confirmed that MRIs of people in their 60s showed gray and white matter increases after just six short months of exercise.

Exercise and the Aging Process: A Deeper Look

Further, “the hippocampus area of the brain, key for memory formation, shrinks 1 to 2 percent per year in those older than 60, but when people in this age group begin fitness regimens, it grows by 1 to 2 percent instead.” (LATimes)

And that’s not all. Exercise also improves the brain’s ability to work with itself—in other words, it improves the communication channels between different parts. These results showed up in patients that merely walked for 45 minutes, three days a week, suggesting that even moderate exercise has a large effect on cognition.

As if these improvements weren’t enough, the preventative merits of exercise should convince you of the value of this conversation. A study published in Neurology last year reported that of 1,238 elderly people studied, the 25 percent who were the most physically active were nearly half as likely to suffer silent brain infarcts.

Perhaps the most important fact to glean from the Iowa researchers’ analysis of the studies is that those at greater risk for cognitive decline (due to genetic predetermination) certainly have the most to gain from physical activity. Through reducing the chance of developing other conditions that can lead to Alzheimer’s disease, increasing blood flow to the brain, and releasing endorphins to improve stress responses, regular moderate exercise can truly improve patients’ brain function and the aging process.

Next time a patient comes to you concerned with his genetic predisposition to Alzheimer’s or dementia, ask if he has a treadmill.  If the answer is no, encourage him to get to the gym and show him how exercise affects the aging process. You may also want to discuss supplements for energy support and tips for staying active and healthy. His heart, lungs, neurons, synapses and family members will be glad you did.