By: Chris Parchmann and the Ageility Team
Health and wellness is extremely important during this stressful time. Ageility advocates mental health for older adults in addition to maintenance of physical attributes as part of a complete fitness and training program. Older adults commonly experience cognitive deficits along with an increased risk of mental ailments like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Exercise elicits cognitive benefits that counteract these risks. Physically fit people function more effectively on tasks involving intellectual demand than less physically active people. The outcomes are most prevalent in older adults (55 and older), who typically show some degree of cognitive decline in specific functions due to the aging process. Ageility has found advantageous effects of exercise on the aging brain. The age related increase in reaction time reduces in active individuals compared to those that are sedentary. The effect becomes even more pronounced for reaction time involving choice. Inactive individuals show greater age associated increases in reaction time, while fit individuals demonstrate little change. In addition to reaction time, general mental performance on complex cognitive challenges are superior in individuals with high fitness levels when compared to their less fit counterpart.
Ageility notes a number of possible reasons for the cognitive benefits of exercise in older adults. One theory is that physical fitness attenuates the decline in cerebral blood flow that normally occurs with aging. Evidence suggests there is increased blood flow to the cerebral cortex in people that exercise. This physiological change with exercise may help deliver oxygen and nutrients to neural tissue within the brain. Factors that preserve and nourish brain tissue may occur with exercise in conjunction to the vascular changes that support neural processes associated with emotions, memory, and reasoning. Staying active is also thought to maintain levels of dopamine found in the central nervous system, which is an essential neurotransmitter linked to the learning of new skills as well as preservation of mental health such as fighting depression. Motor control processes are impacted by dopamine. Parkinson’s disease is a condition that develops when cells producing dopamine in the brain begin to die. The benefits of exercise on the chemical activity within the brain helps to preserve mental functioning.
The advantages of fitness training on cognitive functioning appear to adhere to the principle of specificity discussed in the “Specificity of Fitness Training Programs” article by Ageility but from a psychological standpoint. There are positive effects of exercise on mental activities related to reasoning and problem solving. Tasks that engage the frontal lobe executive processes of the brain are most affected by exercise. Executive processes function in memory and cognitive control of behavior. This region of the brain is usually the most susceptible to the harmful effects of aging and often the first to show signs of decline. Fitness training can improve the mental performance of older adults by positively influencing the executive processes of the brain. Regular exercise can reverse the effects of dementia and be a preventative measure to Alzheimer’s disease.
Ageility recommends older adults participate in both aerobic and strength based exercise-training programs to improve mental fitness as well as physical fitness. Keep in mind that genetics greatly influence physiological adaptations to fitness training. Client differences in the response to exercise are highly dependent on genetic variation. Depending on genetics, individuals can be at higher risk for conditions such as dementia. These individuals are even more likely to achieve the benefits of exercise in the form of protection from cognitive decline. Contact Ageility for guidance on the best fitness practices for older adults.