Exercise helps keep your brain in shape

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Exercise helps keep your brain in shape

Daily walks, mental challengers, nutrition can help stave off Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s diseases.
Gannett News Service
A fast spin on the dance floor or taking daily walks might help keep the brain in top shape as people age — and might reduce the risk of developing age-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, experts now say.

Both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s are degenerative, incurable diseases of the brain. Both are more common in older people; together they afflict more than 5 million people in the United States. Alzheimer’s causes memory problems, and Parkinson’s leads to tremors and shakiness, but the diseases often overlap: Some people with Parkinson’s also have memory loss.

Growing evidence now suggests that lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise and challenging activities, might help ward off or delay the onset of neurodegenerative diseases, possibly by building connections between brain cells or even spurring the production of new brain cells. People who power up the brain in this way may have a better shot at reaching old age with a brain that still performs at top speed, says Elizabeth Edgerly, a brain expert at the Alzheimer’s Association.

To keep the brain healthy:
• Stay fit. Physical activity boosts the blood supply to the brain, and that keeps brain cells well nourished.

Edgerly recommends taking a walk, swimming, yoga or anything that’s physically active three to five days a week. Spend about 30 minutes a day on such activities if you can, but a study suggested that even a 15-minute daily walk could reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s.

“My guess is that we’re going to discover that we should be exercising most days of the week,” said Michael Zigmond, a Parkinson’s researcher at the University of Pittsburgh.

He and other experts say workouts that involve a mental challenge might be better for the brain than those that are routine. So learning a series of complex dance moves might be better than zoning out while riding a stationary bike; a 2005 study found that older men and women who learned to tango got measurable improvements in balance and memory, skills that might help compensate for early signs of a brain disease.

• Challenge your mind. The mental decline that goes along with old age can be traced to altered connections between brain cells, Edgerly says. But stimulating leisure activities can help keep those connections strong. Activities such as playing chess or card games such as poker, going to the theater, reading a book or learning how to play a musical instrument might help keep older brain cells agile and less vulnerable to damage, she says.

• Eat a healthful diet, one loaded with colorful fruits and vegetables. Neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s are tied to damage done by free radicals, highly reactive molecules that are byproducts of metabolism, says James Joseph, a researcher at Tufts University. Fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants, powerful substances that combat free radical damage and might help protect the brain, he says.

His studies of diets rich in such foods show that older rats get a boost in the ability to remember and stay balanced. He says humans might get the same benefit and recommends adding blueberries, strawberries, spinach and other colorful fruits and vegetables to a whole-grain diet that includes low-fat dairy foods and very little junk or fast food fare.

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