Walk Away the Blues
Never Too Late
The Duke researchers also want to focus on a recently
identified phenomenon called "vascular depression." They think damage
to the vessels that supply blood to the brain may be to blame in up to one
third of depression cases. Where depression is caused by such basic plumbing
problems, pharmaceutical solutions may turn out to be less effective than
exercises that help counteract cardiovascular disease, they believe.
Depression in older adults is of special concern because it can
be mistaken for dementia or other age-related ailments rather than as a
potentially treatable illness. And while it is not clear that old age alone
increases the risk of depression, the physical ailments that afflict many
people as they grow older can cause such a reaction. So can some of their
Beth Ellis, 69, thinks the camaraderie of exercising at her
local YMCA is part of what works for her. "There's something about
exercising in a group that's also uplifting," she says. "It's sort of a
What's more, she says, "My experience is that exercise is
the most potent antidepressant you can imagine. I've been on Prozac from time
to time during really bad periods, and it got me through." But each time
she's on it, she eventually wants to stop her medication, and "exercise is
one of the things that lets me handle it myself."
Exercising is no simple matter for Ellis. She has
Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, an incurable neurological disease that degrades
sensation and motor control in the hands, feet, and limbs, leading to weakening
of muscles through disuse. Ellis once was an avid runner, but as her disease
progressed, running became impossible.
Losing her ability to run was a major blow for Ellis and likely
triggered her depression. But now she goes to the YMCA for strength training,
works on a cross-training machine, and does dance aerobics.
"So I'm still in the arena," says Ellis. "I am
convinced that it really, really helps. If I'm unable to exercise for any
reason, I really feel down in the dumps."
Scientists still are learning about why this is true. Is it
exercise's effect on brain chemistry? Is it the boost to self-esteem? Is it the
fellowship people gain when they exercise together? Or is it all of the
Urmson allows as how those questions are interesting. But the
bottom line, she says, is simple: Exercise makes her feel better.
Has she slacked off since she first started working out after
her accident? "Oh," she says with a laugh, "I'm afraid to
David R. Dudley is based in Berkeley, Calif. His stories have
appeared in The New Physician and The San Jose Mercury News.