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Walking Gives Older Women a Mental Boost

Walking Brings Mental Boost

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Roehl likes the idea that her everyday routine may be keeping her brain healthy. Like Lewis, this power-walker says her memory is as sharp as ever and that's how she'd like to keep it.

You don't have to wait until retirement to reap the benefits of walking, though. Experts say the more you walk, the better -- and the earlier you start, the better. At age 38, Jane Niziol still has quite a few years left before she'll start seeing any senior citizen discounts or signs of age-related memory loss. But she's not waiting until old age to start her workouts. She walks six miles every evening after work. "Walking makes me feel great," says Niziol. "It's hard thinking about things like heart disease or Alzheimer's at my age, but I want to make absolutely certain I'm still moving in my golden years. That's why I'm moving now."

Doctors have long touted the benefits of exercise for preventing things like heart disease and diabetes, but until now, few have suggested that the same rule of thumb could be applied to degenerative brain disorders like Alzheimer's.

"Science has definitely lagged behind in terms of trying to find those things that we can do physically to keep the brain healthy," says Danielle Gray, a neuroscientist at Emory University in Atlanta.

Warding Off Dementia

The most common cause of cognitive decline and dementia is Alzheimer's disease. It's a progressive disease that leads to the loss of mental abilities like memory and learning. Today, about 4 million people in the U.S. suffer from this disorder, but that number is expected to skyrocket over the next few decades.

"It's predicted that in the year 2050, there will be 14 million people with Alzheimer's. That's an astronomical leap," says Gray. "So you can imagine -- that's why we are now poised to try and do something about this illness."

Gray is a firm believer that physical activity, in addition to a proper diet, can help ward off the dementia so commonly associated with aging. The exact mechanisms are not yet understood, but Gray says one theory is that aerobic exercise boosts mental performance and short-term memory by increasing blood flow -- and therefore oxygen -- to the brain.

Yaffe is planning studies to examine the issue further. She says that while there's been a lot of effort recently to identify medications to prevent Alzheimer's, few have explored non-drug approaches.

"We know that exercise is good for the body. Now there's a lot of interesting data to support that it can also be good for the brain," says Yaffe. "It would be super to find something other than medications that might help prevent cognitive decline."

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