Exercise for Seniors Becoming New Frontier in
Battle Against Cognitive Decline
Wake Forest study to show whether high- or
low-intensity exercising, or both, can help people with early cognition
Gura, Wake Forest Baptist HealthWire
Dobson (foreground) of Clemmons, N.C., adjusts his machine while Bunny
Fontrier (rear) of Winston-Salem, N.C., chats with staff member Hector
Hernandez Saucedo during an exercise session at Wake Forest Baptist
Medical Center's Sticht Center for Aging.
March 19, 2014 - Marcus Dobson, 60, first recognized the
cognitive decline brought on by Parkinson's disease when he realized he
no longer wanted to play with his grandchildren or even be in the same
room with them. Bunny Fontrier, 63, wasn't having any cognition problems, but
after caring for her mother with dementia she thought she should look at
Dobson and Fontrier are currently participating in a cognition-related exercise study at
Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in
"I thought I'd find out how
my mind is, and if my memory and thinking skills are going to be
improved by this," Fontrier said.
The study got under way in
March and will continue through late 2014. It is designed to show
whether high- or low-intensity exercising, or both, can help people with
early cognition problems.
"There are no FDA-approved
medications for mild cognitive impairment," said
Valerie Wilson, M.D., geriatrics clinic director at Wake
Forest Baptist's Sticht Center on Aging. "We encourage people to stay
physically and mentally active. It's one of those things that just makes
"What used to be referred to
as senility or just 'old age' is now much more understood, recognized
and talked about," said Richard Gottlieb, president and CEO of Senior
Services Inc., a nonprofit agency that conducts a variety of programs
for older adults in the
Winston-Salem area. "I think early intervention is a plus,
but there is still a lot of anxiety and fear about dementia. And it's
critical that we find some answers in terms of prevention and cures."
The brain, just like other
parts of the body, changes as it ages. That process can affect the
functioning of neurons, the cells in the brain responsible for the way
"It's a complicated
metabolic pathway we still do not yet fully understand," Wilson said.
Although the percentages
have held steady, the number of dementia cases is up because of the
rising number of elderly in the United States. It's estimated that 5
percent of the population will have dementia by age 65. By age 80, the
figure jumps to 30 percent.
Memory declines with aging,
even in healthy people, for a variety of reasons. Dementia is a general
term for a significant decline in cognitive function that interferes
with daily life. Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of
dementia, accounting for 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases, according
to the Alzheimer's Association.
One of the toughest things
for individuals and family members is to recognize the first signs of a
Kathy Long, director of Senior Services' Elizabeth and Tab
Williams Day Center in
Winston-Salem, said it is important to understand
that "confusion is never normal."
People who are older
shouldn't fear disclosing a problem because confusion does not
necessarily mean dementia, Long said. Urinary tract infection, pneumonia
and reaction to medication are just three common issues that can cause
cognitive problems, and they can be easily treated.
For more than a decade,
Laura Baker, a cognitive neuroscientist and associate professor of
geriatrics and gerontology at Wake Forest Baptist, has been studying the
benefits of aerobic exercise in slowing cognitive decline and
Next year, Baker will work
with the Alzheimer's Disease Cooperative Study consortium at the
University of California, San Diego, in a $5.5 million effort funded by
the National Institute on Aging. She also directs other exercise and
memory studies at Wake Forest Baptist, such as the program in which
Fontrier and Dobson are participating.
One goal behind the various
studies is to show that exercise helps. Another, Baker said, is to have
exercise become a Medicare-approved treatment in the battle against
Alzheimer's and cognitive decline.
For people in the national
exercise study, Baker said, "We hope to change their sedentary ways
within 12 months. We're going to give them the needed tools and
confidence to exercise on their own. One day, adults with mild cognitive
impairment who are at high risk for dementia may be able to get a
prescription for a specific exercise program at their local YMCA."
Baker is one of many
scientists nationwide working to prove the benefits of aerobic exercise
for cognition and brain health. For example, a recent observational
study published online by the Cooper Institute in Dallas showed that
higher levels of cardiorespiratory fitness during middle age made people
less likely to develop dementia in their senior years.
At Wake Forest Baptist, each
exercise study participant is given about 90 minutes of memory and
thinking tests upon signing up. The tests provide a snapshot of the
participant's "baseline" cognitive abilities. At the end of each
individual's participation, the tests are administered again to provide
Just weeks into their
exercise programs, Fontrier and Dobson already like where they stand.
Fontrier said she has been
able to do better at her job, which involves reviewing numbers, since
beginning her exercise program.
Dobson, a gemologist and
jewelry appraiser, said that exercising has helped him recapture the
desire to play with his grandchildren and helped him to maintain focus.
"I can look you in the eye
and have a valid conversation," he said. "That was something that my
fellow employees said they hadn't seen in a long time."