Age is completely irrelevant

I have recently been trying  to lose weight and get fit with an eye on the next 40 years of my life (currently 53). I wanted to bring down my BSL and my weight and raise my fitness so I could resume running after some decades of virtual inactivity.

I have been going OK with some weight loss and pretty regular running with my dog Bonnie. Today I was inspired to lose whatever age related negativity I had remaining when I read in The Age (Melbourne daily) of two 87 year old men who are riding in this year’s Great Victorian Bike Ride. This ride (Nov 27-Dec5 2010) is 9 days of  cycling over 590 kms. These two guys have ridden in this gruelling ride for the past few years and still find the determination and endurance to get ready for it and then do it each year.

If they can do it so can I. I can at least get out of bed more regularly and make a significant effort to get fit again. Maybe even run in a 5 or 10 km run next year. Or even get back in the saddle and ride in the Great Victorian Bike Ride again as I did once in my 30s.

They are an inspiration. Age is no longer relevant in limiting our thinking about what is possible. We know about greater fitness but we also know about brain plasticity. So as we age our brains are still able to produce new neurons and to make new connections between existing neurons. I can learn a new language. I can learn a new skill. I can get fit again.

Nothing is limited by my age. In fact my life experience makes me even better at knowing how to do these things in a more wise manner so I don’t go out and train too hard and tear muscles or injure myself at I might have once.

“I’m too old for that” is no longer a reasonable argument against taking up something new. If we don’t want to take up a new activity we should not blame it on age.

The Mind your Mind or Mind your Brain promotions of the Alzheimers associations in Australia UK and the US have all promoted brain health by eating well, exercising, keeping yourself mentally engaged with life and socialising well.

So I must get out there and take Bonnie for a walk. For her sake as well mine.

What are you doing for yourself to enjoy your life to the full for as long as possible? Tell us about it.

Age fit

My quest to be fit into my old age has continued over the past couple of weeks with almost daily walking and now (ta da!!) I am running for about 2 minutes at a time several times through my walks. Sounds so minuscule but it is really an effort at this beginning end of the process. I didn’t realise just how unfit my heart and lungs had become. I used to be able to run for hours without getting out of breath, but that is a dim memory.

However, I find it interesting to observe just how quickly my mind has become used to the renewed activity again. I look forward to getting out of bed at 6am and getting dressed for a walk with Bonnie my Border Collie dog. My body and brain are looking forward to the exercise now after about 4-5 weeks. Marvellous how the brain can adjust to a new habit given the regularity. There must have been an old area of the brain that was used for this function before and now I am reactivating it and it is claiming back the neurons for fitness and physical activity. My stride is more confident and sure, my hill walking is better. I used to plod up the hill through the bush near home but now I stride up at the end of the walk.

My little bit of running is such a hopeful sign for me. Mind you by running I mean a slow jog! Last week I actually felt like breaking into a run during my walk and I thought, “I haven’t felt like this for a long time”. So this week a few short 2 minute runs. I am running a bit knock-kneed but I know from previous experience that if I stick at it for a few days I will get hte old fluency back and begin to run in a more even fluid way that feels just great.

This next week I want to begin changing my diet so I can start reducing the weight I have put on over the past 15 years. Little by little. I am beginning with cutting down on the bread and fats in spreads. lets see what difference that makes. More in a week.

Happy age fitness!


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Exercise, memory and dementia

Exercise is good for you and it helps to put off the effects of dementia if you’ve got it.

A neat study presented to day at the International Conference on Alzheimer’s Disease in Hawaii compared the effects of doing Tai Chi, Slow or Fast Walking and Social interaction. They found that there was no improvement on cognition for the Slow Walking group But there was an increase in cognition for all other groups and biggest improvement was for the Tai Chi group. Next were the Fast Walkers.

They also measured brain volume and found that after 8 months Tai Chi increased brain volume most out of all groups with Fast walkers next.

This is an important result as it shows just how an activity like Tai Chi which uses both physical movement and thinking, memory for patterns, concentration and visualising to complete a complex series of movements is better than simple exercise that does not require cognitive effort.

What does this mean for middle aged and older people? Engage in something that is going to exercise your brain as well as your body. The aerobic exercise is good but the mind-body task of Tai Chi is much better.

The increase in brain volume is another support for the plasticity of the brain – the brain can grow new connections, and build new growth to support new challenges. That’s the way we learn and our brain can do it.

Your lifestyle and dementia

The International Conference on Alzheimer’s Disease in Hawaii opened this morning with a re-affirmation that in addition to the well known genetic risk factors for dementia, lifestyle factors can have a significant effect in contributing to or decreasing your risk of Alzheimer’s Disease (AD).

I will begin by briefly summarising the genetic knowledge in one paragraph (presumptuous I know).

Dr Jonathan Haines of Vanderbilt University Medical Centre gave a comprehensive review of the genetic literature that emphasised just how much has been achieved in the past ten years. APOE is still the most consistent gene that turns up in all the studies that search for markers for AD. A long list of other genes are turning up in studies of particular populations. The message here is that some genetic changes are particular to families or groups of families and may have to be studied in detail to find the small indications of the genetic changes that are missed in larger studies. The genetic risks are only about 50% known so far but the next ten years should show remarkable progress.

Lifestyle factors include diet, exercise, cognitive stimulation and sleep. It has been common knowledge for the past decade or so that most of these are contributors to many disease conditions including cardiovascular disease, high cholesterol and diabetes and obesity. All of these conditions are in turn factors that can make your risk of Alzheimer’s disease worse.

Dr Kristine Yaffe, of University of California at San Francisco spoke of the importance of mid-life high blood pressure in increasing your risk. She also mentioned diabetes in mid to late life as a risk of dementia due to unstable insulin levels affecting the levels of beta amyloid which has been implicated in the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease. Obesity is increasingly common but she also included in her remarks “overwieght“. This condition can be as harmful as obesity even though the Body Mass Index may not be as high. Fat is not an inert substance but can have toxic effects in the body by causing inflammation. Inflammation is harmful to neurological function. Numerous studies have shown that reducing inflammation by improving immune function can stimulate cognitive function and everyday living. Dr Yaffe remarked that combinations of these factors can increase your risk of AD markedly.

Other factors that can be important in the risk profile for AD include depression. This has been around for a while as a risk for dementia but she clarified that mid-life depression untreated may in fact be a prodrome or early phase of AD. This is a startling way to understand mid-life depression. This is of concern because many people do not seek treatment for their low mood which can then build into depression. This is particularly true of males.

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a disruptive condition that is now associated with a raised risk of dementia in veterans up to 2.5 times. The common element in this relationship is that the hippocampus (the brain area mostly responsible for memory decreases in size in PTSD. This also happens in AD but it seems that the shrinkage that occurs in PTSD may increase the risk of it developing into AD.

Sleep is the final are covered by Dr Yaffe. Sleep helps to decrease the levels of beta amyloid , the protein that is associated with AD. Sleep is often disturbed in people with AD. The common disturbance of sleep, sleep apnoea may be associated with hypoxia (deprivation of oxygen) that can contribute to brain injury.

So the message is take care of your brain and your body and you will be more likely to live a healthy old age.

How you live makes a difference. The science is pretty strong now. The areas of your life that influence the presence of high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity/overweight, depression and poor sleep are:



Cognitive stimulation

Social engagement

The evidence of other speakers this morning have reinforced the importance of diet. Dr Martha Clare Morris of Rush University Medical Centre, Chicago, reviewed the literature around nutritional factors. These included antioxidants, omega 3 and fish, fats, and Vitamin B12/Folate. You will know from media coverage that when a new discovery is made supporting the use of a particular food to prevent AD, an equally strong study can be quoted to show that this is not so. Dr Morris explained that some of the studies were with subjects who already had adequate dietary levels of these nutritional supplements. Giving them even more showed no effect. The greatest effects have been shown in studies where the subjects have been shown to have inadequate levels of the dietary factor in the first place. Only then does cognitive performance improve or risks decrease. It reaffirmed the importance of the advice that the food supplements we take in such great quantities are really only beneficial when our diets are inadequate in the first place. Eat a healthy balanced diet that is high in antioxidants such as Vitamin E and C, beta carotenes and flavonoidesDHA from fish and other sources and you will maximise your cognitive function and protect your brain into the future.

Exercise, even  every second day is effective in reducing your risk of dementia. The size of the hippocampus (remember this is the brain area for memory!) increases with exercise even after 3 months. Exercise also reduces other dementia risk factors such as high blood pressure, obesity, poor sleep and depression. So get out there and buy a pair of trainers and  shorts and go for it every second day for at least 45 minutes.

Cognitive skills training is the latest thing to become a popular way of fending off the effects of ageing. What is the evidence? Does it stand up? Yes it does. Dr Sherry Willis, of University of Washington, Seattle, looked at Reasoning, Memory and Speed and asked if cognitive skills training made a difference to actual daily living task such as dressing, eating and toileting.

She found that there was a good effect on reasoning ability, speed of performance and for memory function.  For speed she found 86% of people who participated in the cognitive skills training had in improvement in the speed that they could do their tasks while in the control group who had no training only 31% improved. However this improvement does not generalise to other abilities or tasks.

Her study also looked at the effect of a booster session at 1 and 3 years. They found that the booster did  improve the effect of the Cognitive Skills Training for both reasoning and speed but not for memory. Lower functioning subjects improved more than higher functioning people.

Of particular interest was her finding that driving skills improved for the group who had Cognitive Skills Training. This may be an important finding for the safety of elderly road users in helping to maintain their driving skills and so their social independence for longer than is currently the case.

Brain plasticity has been in the news  a lot in recent years as discoveries of just how much brain change we can expect from aging brains changes by the minute. It is extremely heartening to see such evidence for the usefulness of cognitive skills training in fending off the effects of such conditions as dementia and improving functional abilities for longer so that people who have such a condition are enabled to continue to function with success and confidence long into their futures.