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Get moving, stay sharp: A healthy heart helps keep minds healthy

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Catherine W. Idzerda
September 28, 2011
— First, the good news: A healthy heart means a healthy mind.

And a healthy mind often translates to a happy mind.


Now, the bad news: Earlier this year, the Harvard Medical School, citing findings from the National Institutes of Health, reported there is no evidence that vitamins, herb supplements or social or economic factors can reduce the chance of getting Alzheimer’s disease.


But let’s get back to the good news.


While you might not be able to prevent Alzheimer’s, a healthy heart and engaged mind can help keep your skills sharp as you age. In addition, for people in the early to moderate stages of the disease, exercise and social engagement can help improvement mood, making all the difference in quality of life.


Research-based leaps

Dana MacFarlane is the volunteer coordinator for Language Enriched Exercise Plus Socialization at the Alzheimer’s Support Center of Rock County.


“People with Alzheimer’s tend to isolate themselves,” MacFarlane said. “LEEPS helps keep their bodies and minds active.”


The LEEPS program works with people in the early to moderate stages of the disease. MacFarlane does a series of baseline cognitive tests and then matches the participant with a volunteer.


The volunteer and the participant exercise together at least once a week. In addition, they participate in some kind of volunteer activity.


Because it’s a research project, MacFarlane is cautious about talking about absolute outcomes. Instead she refers to a brochure with the official language: “LEEPS is a research project intended to replicate the successful study performed at the University of Phoenix using the same methods. The study showed people with Alzheimer’s disease who participated experienced improved physical fitness and mood.”


One of her challenges is finding people who are in the early to moderate stages of the disease.


“People are scared; they’re in denial,” MacFarlane said.


Unfortunately, depression brought on by the beginnings of memory loss can make things worse.


According to the Harvard Medical School, some studies have shown that depression can be linked to “mild cognitive impairment and cognitive decline.”


Treating the depression won’t prevent Alzheimer’s, but it certainly can improve a patient’s quality of life—and that’s an important part of LEEPS, MacFarlane said.


Brain health, heart health

Janet McLean, manager of the Janesville Senior Center, sees the benefits of exercise and social engagement every day at her job.


And as part of her job, she teaches line dancing several times a week. Her doctor has told her that the exercise has helped her retain bone density, just one of its benefits.


For seniors, exercise that includes a little bit of mental stretching is perfect.


“You have to remember the moves,” McLean said of line dancing.


The center also offers Zumba Gold, an exercise class with dance moves, and the StrongWomen exercise program.


Participants don’t have to worry about keeping up with the moves. Instructors take things slowly, and participants are encouraged to “just keeping moving,” even if they don’t know the specific moves.


How can exercise make a difference?


According to studies at the National Institutes of Health and elsewhere, physically active people stay mentally sharp longer. The easy explanation is that brain cells “crave a steady diet of oxygen,” according to the Harvard Medical School.


Exercise also helps ward off weight gain and associated diseases that can impair brain function such as strokes.


Perhaps more importantly, exercise, especially at a place such as the senior center, allows people to engage with others and find supportive friendships.


TO LEARN MORE

For more information about the Language Enriched Exercise Plus Socialization program of the Alzheimer’s Support Center of Rock County, call Dana MacFarlane at the support center, (608)290-5020.


For more information about the StrongWomen Courses offered throughout Rock County, call Angie Flickinger at (608) 757-5689 or go online to rock.uwex.edu/family-living-and-nutrition-education/.

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