How to keep your brain from shrinking

Do we have to lose gray matter as we age? Here’s some good news.

In a 9-year study, people who walked just 6 to 9 miles each week preserved significantly more gray matter as they aged, compared with their more sedentary peers. Here’s the bad news: for everyone who skips the exercise, well, looks like our brains shrink as we age, just like a piece of fruit on the kitchen counter.

Most of us know we’re not all that healthy as a nation. Since heart disease is still a big killer in the U.S., you’d think most people would at least try for heart health. But only one in 1900 of us is actually in “ideal” condition.

According to a new study led by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, only one out of more than 1,900 people evaluated met the American Heart Association (AHA) definition of ideal cardiovascular health.

Ideal cardiovascular health is the combination of these seven factors: nonsmoking, a body mass index less than 25, goal-level physical activity and healthy diet, untreated cholesterol below 200, blood pressure below 120/80 and fasting blood sugar below 100, explains senior investigator and cardiologist Steven Reis, M.D., associate vice chancellor for clinical research at University of Pittsburgh.

I just had my cholesterol checked at my annual physical. I get a lot of exercise. Mine’s in the normal range, as is everything else. Yes, it’s lucky on the one hand. But work is also involved. I get out of bed and go for a walk or a run/walk nearly every day. I’m also fitting in a swim or two and bike ride every week, to keep the training going. I don’t call it luck when I hit the street half asleep in the rain and keep going for those 3 miles with the hill at the end.

According to the World Health Organization, almost 20% of all strokes and over 50% of all heart attacks can be linked to high blood cholesterol levels. I don’t want to be one of the statistics. My solution: walk.

Attention caregivers! You risk even more heart problems and health issues than people who don’t have primary caregiver responsibility for an aging parent or other loved one. Exercise, in the form of a walk, is a simple fix for some of these things. It can surely improve our odds of being healthy longer, and of being able to cope with the stresses of caregiving. Oh, yes, and we avoid the shrinking brain thing too.

“I don’t have time” and “I’m just too tired when I get off work” are the two most common excuses for not exercising. OK. Like everything else, you make the time for what is most important to you. Here’s my personal recommendation for the exercise averse: just try a walk a day, at least 5 days a week, for 21 days.

They say it takes 21 days to form a new habit. All you need is a decent pair of walking shoes. If you don’t own a pair, it’s a great excuse to go shopping.Lay them out by the door before you go to bed, along with your walking clothes.Set the alarm for a half hour or so earlier.Get out there and walk.

I am a supporter of every caregiver in the world, as I do know how hard it can be. I’m responsible for one family member now and was a caregiver for another for years. I hear the stories and give advice to caregivers every day at AgingParents.com. I get through it, and you can, too. I don’t think I could handle the stress of life without my exercise habit.

So here’s wishing you a new addiction:yourdaily walk.And let me know how you’re doing. I’m interested.

Until next time,

Carolyn Rosenblatt,
AgingParents.com