Walking May Help Prevent Dementia In Seniors, If Only They Could Do It Safely

And so our society's mixed messages continue.

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Getting regular aerobic exercise, such as walking, may be one of the best ways to stave off dementia, a finding recently reconfirmed by yet another study.

But older Americans are the most at risk for being killed when they go out on foot in their communities, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control.

It’s just another illustration of the inherently ridiculous situation faced by a huge proportion of the American public. Even as we recognize that regular exercise is good for people of all ages – including and especially kids and senior citizens – we continue to build communities that make it especially hazardous for those very same people to go for a simple walk to the store.

As a result, too many Americans don’t get the moderate exercise that could improve their health in the course of their daily lives. The alternative is for them to drive (or be driven) to the gym, where they can pace on treadmills while looking at walls, or sit on exercise bicycles and pedal to nowhere while watching TV.

It would be funny if the consequences weren't so grave, and if we didn't have the resources and knowledge to do things differently.

Take the recent findings about exercise and dementia.

As summarized in a recent story on NPR mentioning the research of neuroscientist Art Kramer, who directs the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois, aerobic exercise has proven effective in increasing the brain health of older adults:

Kramer did a study in which he scanned the brains of 120 older adults, half of whom started a program of moderate aerobic exercise — just 45 minutes, three days a week, mostly walking. After a year, the MRI scans showed that for the aerobic group, the volume of their brains actually increased.

What's more, individuals in the control group lost about 1.5 percent of their brain volume, adding up to a 3.5 percent difference between individuals who took part in aerobic exercise and those who did not. Further tests showed that increased brain volume translated into better memory.

Kramer's research echoes numerous other studies. Neuroscientist Peter Snyder, a researcher at Brown University's Alpert Medical School and Rhode Island Hospital, told NPR the evidence is mounting that moderate aerobic exercise — walking — could be the best thing older adults can do to maintain mental sharpness.

"What we're finding is that of all of these noninvasive ways of intervening, it is exercise that seems to have the most efficacy at this point — more so than nutritional supplements, vitamins and cognitive interventions," says Snyder, who studies what we can do to maintain memory as our brains age.... "The literature on exercise is just tremendous," he says. "What we find is that with exercise — with aerobic exercise, a moderate amount on a regular basis — there are chemical changes that occur in the brain that promote the growth of new neurons in [the hippocampus]."

 

And yet the streets of many American communities are designed in such a way that taking a simple walk can be a life-threatening proposition, especially for older people, who might move more slowly and have limited vision or other disabilities. The CDC figures show that pedestrians over the age of 75 are twice as likely to be killed while walking as members of the general population. Yet key lawmakers continue to block funding for better pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, ensuring that more roads and bridges get built without accommodations for people outside of motor vehicles. 

And so our society's mixed messages continue. You should get up and go for a walk! The Surgeon General says it’s good for you in every way!

But wait a second – you know you’d be crazy to go for a walk on that busy street near your house, right? You can’t move fast enough to cross that road, which is being used by important people who are commuting long distances to their jobs. Oh, and since older drivers are less safe as well, driving to the gym might not be such a great idea for you after all. Public transportation? We don’t have the money for that. Times are hard, after all.

The simple ability to walk near one's home should be a human right. But even if you don't believe that, it is a public health issue that costs our rapidly aging nation country big money in increased health care costs.

The more insidious toll it takes on the bodies, minds, and spirits of older people who stay inside their homes, looking out, is harder to measure. But it is no less real.

Top image: David W. Leindecker/Shutterstock.com

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.