tufts universitytufts magazine issue homepage
contact us back issues related links
features columns Connoisseur Strong People Kids These Days Animal Instincts Negotiating Life jumbolaya planet tufts newswire wedding album departments

strong people

Mind-Body Connection

A walk a day may keep Alzheimerís away

My grandmother was always a strong woman and a force to be reckoned with, so our family was devastated when she was diagnosed with Alzheimerís disease in her late sixties. She lived well into her nineties but suffered a seriously diminished quality of life for her last two-and-a-half decades.

As I grow older, I worry as much about cognitive health as I do about physical health. I am thrilled to see new research showing that keeping your body in good shape can help keep your brain fit, too.

In one recent study, a team of researchers at the Group Health Center for Health Studies in Seattle examined the link between physical function and dementia. They followed 2,288 men and women, ages 65 and older, for approximately 10 years. None of the participants had dementia at the start of the study.

The researchers assessed physical performance and cognitive ability at the beginning of the study and again every other year for an average of six years. They measured physical performance using four different tests (a 10-foot timed walk, chair-to-standing time, standing balance, and grip strength), and assessed mental status using the Cognitive Ability Screening Instrument (CASI). They discovered that the people who scored higher on the physical-performance assessments were three times less likely to develop dementia during the 10-year study period than those who scored lower.

Others researchers have had similar findings. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association looked at the relationship between physical activity and cognitive function in 16,466 women between the ages of 70 and 81. The women were part of the Nursesí Health Study, a survey that has been used to assess the medical history and health-related behaviors of female registered nurses since 1976.

The researchers divided the women into five groups based on the average level of physical activity they reported over the course of the study (8 to 15 years). Women who were the most physically active had a 20 percent lower risk of cognitive impairment than the women who were the least physically active. And itís not just vigorous exercise that produces results: women who walked for at least an hour and a half per week at a pace of 21 to 30 minutes to the mile had better cognitive scores than women who were less active.

While more research needs to be done, these studies are an important first step. They emphasize the far-reaching benefits of physical activity and remind us how important it is to keep ourselves movingóno matter what our age.

So how do you get started? First, realize that itís never too late to become physically active. The key is to choose activities you enjoy and start slowly; exercise doesnít have to be vigorous to work. Try to include some physical activity in your day on a regular basis: work in your garden, take regular walks with friends, or play a round of golf. The Surgeon General recommends that you accumulate at least 30 minutes of

moderate to vigorous activity on most (preferably all) days of the week. Remember, all physical activity counts.

At age 79 my mother is going strong. She has a gym on the first floor of her house in Vermont and works out regularly. In the winter she still cross-country skis every day. Both her mental and physical health are remarkable for someone her age. Because she keeps fit and strong, I have a good feeling that she will not follow in her motherís footsteps.

MIRIAM E. NELSON is director of the John Hancock Center for Physical Activity and Nutrition at Tufts and an associate professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. She also holds an adjunct appointment at the Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service. Strong Women, Strong Backs (GP Putnamís Sons), her eighth book in the bestselling Strong Women†series, was published in September.

  © 2006 Tufts University Tufts Publications, 200 Boston Ave., Suite 4600, Medford, MA 02155