Doctors presenting patients with a healthy lifestyle challenge will reap rewards
Regular physical activity is vital for your older patients to not only improve their physical health, but also their emotional and mental wellbeing. According to recent guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as a healthy lifestyle challenge, middle age and older adults in good health should aim for:1
- At least 150 minutes a week of moderately intense activity, such as brisk walking
- At least two days a week of activities to strengthen the muscles
- Balancing activities, such as standing on one foot.
Of course, these might be difficult goals for patients with disabilities or mobility problems. However, your older patients can still benefit from regular exercise.
Research has shown that regular physical activity may actually improve cognitive performance for middle age and older adults, and could even provide protection against Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Link between physical activity and cognitive decline
One relatively recent article in the journal Neurology examined the effect of up to five healthy lifestyle factors on the risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease. Study subjects with two to three healthy lifestyle factors had a 37% reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease compared to those with no or only one healthy lifestyle factor, while those subjects with four to five factors had a 60% reduced risk.2
One meta-analysis from 2014 pooled results from a number of smaller papers and found that more physical activity reduced the risk of developing dementia by 14%. Another meta-analysis from 2011 found a 35% lower risk of cognitive decline among subjects who had even low to moderate levels of regular physical activity.3,4
Finally, an article from earlier this year reported on research showing that patients giving themselves a healthy lifestyle challenge and increasing physical activity can protect against cognitive loss, even on a day to day basis.5
For this study, researchers measured the cognitive effect of daily physical activity on a group of 90 subjects, who ranged from cognitively normal to impaired. Study subjects completed cognitive tests twice daily for 14 days, while using an accelerometer to capture their daily physical activity levels. At the end of the study period, subjects showed better cognitive function on those days with increased levels of even moderate physical activity.5
Reducing inflammation and improving heart health
While doctors presenting patients with a healthy lifestyle challenge will reap rewards, the mechanisms by which increasing physical activity can improve cognitive function are still somewhat unclear.
However, a 2017 article in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease suggests that reduced inflammation and improved cardiovascular health help decrease central arterial stiffness, which in turn, can increase blood flow to the brain.6
The healthy lifestyle challenge for older patients to slow decline
As both the younger half of the baby boomers and Generation X age (those born between 1955 and 1980), they are looking for ways to slow or prevent cognitive decline. Research focusing on a wellness lifestyle, including regular physical activity, has shown that the risk for cognitive decline lowers as patients follow a healthier lifestyle.
Even moderate amounts of daily physical activity can help keep your older patients in good cognitive health, which will benefit their physical and emotional health as well.
- How much physical activity do older adults need? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Reviewed Feb. 11, 2021.
- Dhana K, Evans DA, Rajan KB, et al. Healthy lifestyle and the risk of Alzheimer dementia: Findings from 2 longitudinal studies. Neurology. 2020;95(4):e374-e383.
- Blondell SJ, Hammersley-Mather R, Veerman JL. Does physical activity prevent cognitive decline and dementia? A systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal studies. BMC Public Health. 2014;14:510.
- Sofi F, Valecchi D, Bacci D, et al. Physical activity and risk of cognitive decline: A meta-analysis of prospective studies. Journal of Internal Medicine. 2011;269(1):107-117.
- Zlatar ZZ, Campbell LM, Tang B, et al. Daily level association of physical activity and performance on ecological momentary cognitive tests in free-living environments: A mobile health observational study. JMIR Mhealth and Uhealth. 2022;10(1):e33747.
- Kennedy G, Hardman RJ, Macpherson H, et al. How does exercise reduce the rate of age-associated cognitive decline? A review of potential mechanisms. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. 2017;55(1):1-18.