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Mental Benefits of Diverse Exercise

New research from Johns Hopkins suggests that exercise variety – as opposed to intensity in terms of total calorie burn – may reduce the risk of developing dementia later in life.The data come from the Cardiovascular Health Cognition Study, conducted over eight years, of 3,375 seniors who were asked to list the frequency and duration of 15 activities – including walking, biking, hiking, dancing, bowling and golfing – most common among older adults.While 450 new cases of dementia were reported overall, those participating in four or more activities had 84 cases, vs.130 cases among those with one or no activities.

“It could well be that maintaining a variety of activities keeps more parts of the brain active,” said Dr.Constantine Lyketsos, senior study author.These results nicely dovetail with the “use it or lose it” approach to maintaining mental function through the years.In one study, seniors over 75 who kept their minds active while also maintaining an active social life reduced their risk of Alzheimer’s by 30% when compared to isolated, inactive elders.

While the Johns Hopkins findings focused on exercise variety vs.intensity, many neuroscientists now believe that the same factors which strengthen the heart may also preserve the brain, and vigorous activity remains a pillar of cardiovascular health.Burning off excess calories is also key to avoiding obesity – which may double the risk of developing dementia, according to a 21-year longitudinal study involving over 1,500 subjects.

The other half of the weight management equation involves keeping calories consumed under control.The smartest, healthiest, tastiest – and by far easiest – method relies on choosing fiber-rich, low-cal fruit and vegetables to fill you up.Red apples offer an added benefit as a top source of quercetin – a polyphenol under study for its potential to provide brain benefits.Leafy greens may also boost mental acumen in later years, and unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve likely heard aboutblueberries’ potential to help reverse some loss of memory and motor skills, according to preliminary studies.

Other dietary “do’s” for keeping your gray matter in the pink include regular consumption of fish, as discussed in the most recent newsletter.One of curry’s ingredients – the vivid yellow spice turmeric – contains a compound called curcumin, which may also protect the brain against some of the oxidation that contributes to Alzheimer’s.Niacin is another nutrient for your noggin.In one four-year study of 800 seniors, those with the highest niacin intakes had an 80% lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s.Niacin sources include portobello and button mushrooms, red potatoes and salmon.

Want more food for thought? Revisit our interview with Dr.Gary Small, author of the Memory Prescription and Director of the UCLA Center on Aging.

Published December 22, 2005

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