A recent article on CNN.com reports on a new large study appearing in the Journal of the American Medical Association that shows a connection between slower walking speeds (or gait) and development of dementia. The research seems to show that a decrease in the speed at which older adults walk year to year may be an early indicator of cognitive decline and dementia. The study looked at the pace of walking as well as the ability of participants to answer certain cognitive/memory questions, then drew conclusions about their relationship.
Although it was a large study (17,000 subjects), more research should follow. As I read the article, I wondered about a chicken and egg question. Did walking speed decrease because of lower cognition, or did cognition somehow decrease because of slower walking? If the second is the case, then it would make sense that we should regularly monitor people to see if they are literally slowing down; if so, they should be put on a program to increase the velocity of their gait. The research does show that when both factors (slower walking and cognitive decline) are present, there is a much greater chance of dementia–as opposed to mild cognitive impairment, which is a “normal” part of the aging process.
The study seems to indicate that the connection may exist in the right hippocampus–the area of the brain associated with memory. Believe it or not, the size of the right hippocampus can actually be increased with regular aerobic exercise (the kind that elevates heart and breating rates). It is not as if we simply have to accept the fact that once we slow down we are on a slippery slope to dementia; keeping up the pace of our exercise can have a positive impact. Even stretching exercises were shown to make a difference.
More research will surely be forthcoming. This study will certainly become an important tool in assessing the risks of dementia. It also provides another reason why it is so important for older adults to remain active and engage in regular exercise. It is not just about our physical health, but about our mental well-being too!
I recently had a discussion with a loved one about doing personal training with individuals who have irreversible medical conditions and/or cognitive decline. The focus was on whether it is ethical to accept payment to work with someone when there is little chance that the work we are doing will improve the situation.
I wrote about this tangentially in a blog post a couple of years ago in which I talked about the statement “All Lives Matter,” concluding that many people who say that really do not act in way that truly reflects it. I shared a story about an incarcerated individual with whom I have corresponded and visited for over twenty years. He is currently serving a life sentence. In 2002, he was diagnosed with a terrible cancer and called on me to counsel him on what he should do. Ultimately, he decided to undergo treatment and beat the odds by becoming cancer-free (he did the same again with a later diagnosis). One might wonder what the point is of curing one’s cancer if when it is all over s/he will still be still be incarcerated for the rest of one’s life. Is the life of an incarcerated person somehow not worth living? I learned that it is, and I have seen it played out over and over again since 2002.
In a similar vein, one could ask whether there is any point to training someone with Alzheimer’s or another end-stage disease. I addressed this in a more recent post, remembering a client who was on hospice care when I began training him. He had been athletic his whole life and his family knew that he loved to work out; in the last several months of his life, that is what we did together. Did it hold off the disease? Did it cure him? No. Did it add quality to his life on the days we were together? I would like to think so.
I do work with clients who experience cognitive decline. There are all kinds of considerations that go into carrying out this kind of training and my certifying organiation, The American Council on Exercise, has even written about it. There is research that indicates that aerobic exercise can actually help maintain (and perhaps even improve) cognitive function, but even if there was not, the quality time spent together is worth it. As with all my clients, I meet them where they are–physically, emotionally, spiritually, and mentally. I consider it a special honor to work with older adults; I believe that I make a difference in the lives of these clients (and in their families), and I know it has made a difference in mine.