Health

Wednesday 24 September 2014

Take a step forward in warding off dementia and Alzheimer's disease

Activities like regular walking offer very real, very valuable and very easily gained benefits.

They say age brings wisdom, and that we should learn from ancient cultures in which elders are venerated. But they also say there's no fool like an old fool. My boomerang stopped coming back a long time ago and I'm definitely not getting enough respect.

It's claimed in prominent quarters that you can combat the signs of ageing, but when you dig deeper into either your pocket or the facts it turns out they're not talking about grumpiness or dribbling, but things like wrinkling, sagging and something called strawberry nose, for which cream is available.

Enter Kirk Erickson. Earlier this month, in Chicago, he delivered a paper to the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science that struck a Thor-like blow for the improvement of all our old ages. In Aging, Exercise, and Brain Plasticity, Professor Erickson, a neuroscientist at the University of Pittsburgh, studied more than 100 men and women aged from 60 to 80 who had included little or no exercise in their daily routines.

Half the group walked for 30 to 45 minutes three days a week. The rest spent a similar amount of time doing stretching exercises.

Erickson's team found that simply taking a short walk three times a week increased the size of brain regions linked to planning and memory over the course of a year. These regions – the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus – increased in size by just two or three per cent, but enough to offset the steady shrinkage expected over that period.

"It may sound like a modest amount but that effect is actually like reversing the age clock by about one to two years," said Erickson. We actually saw not a levelling out but an increase in the size of these regions.

"The prefrontal cortex is involved in many higher-level cognitive functions and the hippocampus is involved in memory formation. When it shrinks, it leads to Alzheimer's disease and dementia.

"You don't need highly vigorous physical activity to see these effects. It only needs to be moderate, and not even for that long. The results suggest that brain and cognitive function of the older adults remain plastic and highly malleable."

A little perspective, please; this matters. According to figures from Alzheimer's Disease International, an estimated 44.4 million people now have dementia worldwide, and that number is expected to reach 75.6 million in 2030.

While nobody is claiming that light exercise represents a long-term cure for the cognitive degeneration that mars so many otherwise-healthy lives, this is exciting stuff because reliably delaying the onset of dementia has so far proved beyond medical science or the pharmaceutical industry. The fact that the mechanism by which physical exercise achieves these effects is yet to be understood leaves open the possibility that there is much more to come from this line of research.

Meanwhile, even an imperfect understanding of the science gives us more than adequate assurance that activities like regular walking offer very real, very valuable and very easily gained benefits.

If I could just get the packaging right, I could sell this stuff by the truckload. Walking Combats the Big 50 Signs of Ageing. You can have cream with that.

Conor O'Hagan is editor of the bi-monthly Walking World Ireland magazine. www.walkingworldireland.com

Walk of the week: Claragh Loop Millstreet, Co Cork

Distance: 10k

Ascent: 360m/300m

Estimated time: 2hr 30mins to 3hrs

Grade: Moderate

Terrain: Laneways/hillside tracks and paths

From Mallow, take the N72 in the direction of Killarney. After 26k turn left onto the R583 – the town is a further 10k.

The trailhead is located at St Patrick's Church. Leaving the trailhead, follow the purple arrows on Clara Road. You are also following the yellow arrows of the Duhallow Way – you will leave this shortly. After 500m the roadway turns right and passes a grotto – immediately afterwards turn left onto Singleton's Road.

Continue to follow the purple and yellow arrows to reach an entrance to the forestry. Turn right. Now follow the forestry roadway. After 500m you exit the forestry and follow the edge of it to reach a three-way junction where you continue straight.

Another 500m takes you to a gateway – pass through it and join a track which begins to take you more steeply uphill.

After 1k you reach a metal gate where the loop turns left.

After passing through the gate, turn right and follow the track for 100m before turning left, descending to reach a stile where the loop turns right. The next section takes you downhill to rejoin the Duhallow Way at a green laneway where you turn right.

Continue to follow the laneway for almost 2k – watch for a sharp right turn 100m after the second gateway. Eventually the loop rejoins the outward section at a junction. This time turn left. Follow the purple and yellow arrows through forestry, rejoin Singleton's Road and turn left. At the end of Singleton's Road turn right and enjoy the last 500m.

Irish Independent

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