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More Evidence That Staying Active is Good for the Brain

Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.: Mon, Apr 30th 2012

There's a little-known event that takes place in St. George, Utah every year called the Huntsman World Senior Games. No, it doesn't attract riflemen looking for deer and it's not about that tumultuous last year of high school.

older man on stairstepperThe Huntsman World Senior Games is an international sports event for men and women who are 50 years of age and older. The event launched in 1987 and draws thousands of seniors from around the globe every year.

You may think that this must be a very tame rendition of a sporting excursion. Having been a volunteer at the Games, I can attest to the fact that this is no walk in the park. Athletes twice my age and five times more athletic than me participate in 27 events over two weeks each October.

Have you ever seen an 82-year-old man run a marathon? I have. I've also cheered on an 87-year-old woman as she raced her mountain bike up one of the steepest canyons in Southern Utah and watched some spry groups in their 70s play a vicious match of sand volleyball.

These athletes are incredible. Why do they do it? Some of them have told me that it keeps them feeling young. Others say it's to prevent disease. All of them allude to the notion that it gives them a sense of purpose and satisfaction in life.

I think they're on to something. Just this week, Rush University published an article in the online journal Neurology summarizing results from their study of late life activity and risk of Alzheimer's disease. The researchers found that among the older adults who participated in the study (with an average age of 82), the most physically active had an 8% risk of developing Alzheimer's over a 5-year span. The least active had an 18% risk of developing the disease.

We've heard of studies like this before, but what makes this one stand out is the way physical activity was measured. Participants wore a device called an actigraph that resembles a wristwatch and measures even the subtlest forms of activity, such as folding laundry or gardening, 24 hours a day.

This is much more reliable than the method used in most other studies - asking participants to estimate their level of physical activity. It's hard for us to put a number on these kinds of things, given our differences in memory and the way we perceive exercise.

Of course, we'd love to know why older people who are more active have a lower risk of Alzheimer's disease. One theory is that exercise reduces blood pressure and increases circulation, both of which are good for the brain. Another idea is that staying physically active reduces inflammation - an insidious internal process that isn't so good for the brain.

More research will continue to parse these theories into meaningful realities. But in the meantime, I cannot think of one reason why we all should not increase our levels of physical activity for the sake of our physical well-being as well as our intellectual wellness and brain functioning too.

During busy weeks like this one, I realize how much I need to heed this advice myself. Now where can I get one of those actigraphs?


Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.

Itís a true blessing to have you visit my blog on mental health and wellness. I also write blogs on faith and caregiving in addition to teaching part-time for Columbia College of Missouri. For more information about my background and writing, visit my webpage at

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