Notes on Aging

Lifting Weights, Twice a Week, May Aid the Brain

Many neurological studies have found that, by late middle age, most of us have begun developing age-related holes or lesions in our brains’ white matter, which is the material that connects and passes messages between different brain regions.

lifting kettle bellThese brain lesions show up on imaging studies before people begin experiencing their symptoms, just as osteoarthritis (joint degeneration) shows up on x-rays before people begin feeling pain. Most studies that advocate the benefits of exercise on maintaining brain health have focused on aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking. But a new study suggests that light resistance exercise, lifting weights, may also improve brain health.

Teresa Liu-Ambrose, professor of physical therapy and director of the Aging, Mobility, and Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, looked at the brains of a large group of generally healthy women between the ages of 65 and 75 who already were enrolled in a brain health study that she was leading. The new study focused on 54 of the women whose brain scans showed existing white matter lesions.

For this study, researchers divided the participant pool into three groups:

  1. Those who began a once-weekly program of light upper- and lower-body weight training
  2. Those who underwent the same weight training program twice a week
  3. The control group, who began a twice-weekly program of stretching exercises and balance training

The results found that those in group 2 “displayed significantly less shrinkage and tattering of their white matter” than those in both of the other two groups. These results, published in The Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, suggest that working out just once a week may not be sufficient.

Whatever the reason, exercise, including weight training, clearly “has benefit for the brain,” Dr. Liu-Ambrose said. “However we are just really now gaining an appreciation for how impactful exercise can be.”

Can You Get Smarter?

In this opinion piece in the New York Times, Richard A. Friedman, professor of clinical psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, examines the question of whether brain training can enhance memory and cognitive functioning. Since “one in nine people age 65 and older has Alzheimer’s disease,” concerns about maintaining brain health are common, and brain training has become a multibillion-dollar industry.

Friedman looks at the effects of several areas of intervention on improving brain health: mental exercises, physical exercise, and medication. He discusses both the encouraging news and the caveats arising from the scientific research.

He concludes that there is one thing that consistently seems to help preserve cognitive functioning: other people. Analysis of data from a large study:

showed that people with the highest level of social integration had less than half the decline in their cognitive function of the least socially active subjects. Also, the cognitive protective effects of socializing were greatest among subjects with fewer than 12 years of education.

Friedman concludes:

there is much that you can do to reach your cognitive potential and to keep it. Forget the smart drugs and supplements; put on your shorts and go exercise. If you’re 60 and up, consider brain training. And do it all with your friends.

Costs for Dementia Care Far Exceeding Other Diseases, Study Finds

Three diseases, leading killers of Americans, often involve long periods of decline before death. Two of them — heart disease and cancer — usually require expensive drugs, surgeries and hospitalizations. The third, dementia, has no effective treatments to slow its course.

This eye-opening article looks at the costs associated with long-term care of patients with dementia. What’s most sobering is the that fact that much of the required care is not covered by Medicare:

On average, the out-of-pocket cost for a patient with dementia was $61,522 — more than 80 percent higher than the cost for someone with heart disease or cancer.

While Medicare covers medical care, such as doctor visits, hospitalization, and surgery, it does not cover the personal care required by many people with dementia—help with bathing, dressing, and eating. Most people pay for this care from their own funds. When they have nothing left, Medicaid, a joint federal and state program, takes over.

This article makes clear why caring for an elderly relative with dementia can be such a devastating burden, both physically and financially.

Assessing the Fitness of Wearable Tech

wearable fitness trackerJane E. Brody discusses fitness trackers: “experts say that older adults are among those who could benefit most from such devices.”

The wearable fitness tracker has blossomed, but the gadgets can be expensive, from about $49 to $250, Brody reports. But, according to a study published recently in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association), smartphone applications are just as accurate as wearable devices in tracking physical activity.

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