Health & Fitness

Exercise boosts both physical, mental health


“Is there any connection between physical exercise and cognitive health? I am 60 and several friends of mine are pushing me to join work out classes to prevent a rapid decline of my cognitive ability”

The holiday season is a good time for friends and family to ponder all manner of things. The New Year is even better because, perhaps like you, many people make (and later break) New Year resolutions.

The making of New Year resolutions is common, and almost always involves the intention to improve one’s life. Some of the common ones include staying fit and healthy, joining a gym and spending more time with friends and family. Few of these resolutions work in the real world where we live.

It seems that your friends are on the right track and that you might as well listen to them and get some exercise done as soon as possible. For a few people things do indeed go well.

During the recent holiday season, two young people visited their grandmothers in turn. The first grandmother was in her late 60s and had what they later found out was Alzheimer’s disease. The story told was that the lady had led a full and fulfilling life as an accountant, but that in her early 60s she had gradually and steadily “lost her mind”. The symptoms had creeped in slowly.

At first, it was what they all took to be silly things. Some even said that she was pretending. She would for example look for her car keys for long periods, while they were in her handbag. At other times, she would get to the supermarket without her shopping list. In time she forgot important things she had attended to all her life, such as visits with friends on the third Thursdays of the month. This group of girls had met regularly for the better part of 45 years. Her friends said she was becoming proud, while others blamed her husband who seemed to have found a younger woman for a friend.

Her deterioration became alarming when on a number of occasions she could not find her car in town and had to find a taxi home! The family then met in emergency session, organised an in house house-help. Her mental and physical states were deteriorating steadily.

When the young people visited, communication was very difficult. Though well educated, she had lost all ability to speak in English and only spoke her mother tongue Dholuo. Neither friend understood their grandmother. They became more distressed when the house help told them what the old lady was saying. With a measure of aggression and irritability she was accusing them of having come to kill her. They later found out that the lady was deluded meaning that she had a mental condition that led her to believe things that were objectively not true.

Rather than lose hope, the young people decided to visit the doctor who looked after the lady. They were educated by the doctor on some of the risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease. These include increasing age, genetic predisposition (i.e. in some cases runs in families) as well as past trauma to the head (as in football and boxing).

To answer your question, they were surprised to learn that lack of physical exercise is also a predisposing factor, as is smoking, obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

A life changing experience was to come their way at the next visit to the other grandmother.

In her early 90s, they found her reading in her garden, enjoying some orange juice. She lived with one house help who cleaned and cooked for her. She did all her shopping, exercised daily and in her own estimation, was as fit as a fiddle.

As the day progressed, they noted her eating habits were very healthy and as the time moved, they became more aware how much exercise she did daily. She took long walks, had only recently stopped swimming. She later took them to her library and she clearly read a great deal. As they said on their way home after that visit, the old lady had read more biographies that they knew existed.

By this second visit, it was clear to the two young people that genetically the two grandparents were different. One had genes for longevity. It was also clear that one exercised her mind and body more than the other.

They now knew that physical and environmental factors play a role in cognitive function.