Heart and Brain health walk hand-in-hand

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A couple of old guys staying young at heart

A news item caught my eye earlier this week. It should have been big news more than a month ago wherever an aging population and the onset of dementia is a growing socio-economic problem; like Canada, for example. But it wasn’t.

Later on-line searches revealed there was a sprinkling of mainstream news coverage. But I follow the daily news pretty closely, and it never was among the top stories. Too bad. If you’re a senior, as I am, or middle-aged – or any age, for that matter — the results of a lengthy on-line study in Sweden are something you should know.

And take to heart, literally.

“The findings suggest that high cardiovascular fitness is associated with a decreased risk of dementia, said lead author Helena Horder, a researcher at the Centre for Aging and Health at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. In other words,  a healthy heart is linked to good brain health, said the on-line specialty news outlet, Live Science, in a March 14 article. That was the same day the results of the 50-year study were first published in the journal Neurology.

In the study, researchers looked at data from 191 women in Sweden ages 38 to 60. At the start, in 1968, all of the women were given a challenging exercise test on a stationary bike.

“After tracking the women for 44 years, the researchers found that those fitness test scores helped predict whether the women would be diagnosed with dementia later in life.,” Live Science said.

Their analysis showed that “32 percent of the women with a low fitness score developed dementia during the study period, compared with 25 percent of those women with a medium fitness score and five percent of the highly fit women.

“But the highest dementia rates were seen in women who started the exercise test but could not complete it: 45 percent of these women went on to develop dementia.”

The expert researchers suspect – and, after all, it seems like common sense — an underlying cardiovascular problem like high blood pressure might have made those women more vulnerable to dementia years later.

It’s also common sense, I dare say, that the results apply to men as well as women.

The published study notes the researchers did not pin down an actual “cause-and-effect” connection between cardiovascular fitness and the risk of dementia. Surprisingly little is known about the direct cause of a condition that increasingly affects millions of elderly people, especially in an age when people are living longer than ever.

Experts have a scientific obligation to make such points in published studies. But a lay-person like me is free to say the connection between physical fitness and heart health is obvious. I certainly take it to heart, again, in hopes I’m not too late, again.

Coincidentally, I recently had one of those events, often referred to euphemistically as a “senior moment.” Family company was up for a visit, a daughter and her husband and my youngest grandson. Hi, Jake.

At a certain point in mid-afternoon, which has become a low-energy level in the past year, I forgot the name of the son-in-law I’ve known for more than enough years. I couldn’t for the life of me think of his name when I had a message to pass on to my daughter. The best I could do was, “the other guy,” of all ridiculous things.

I put it down to, as I say, a senior’s moment. But it must have raised some concerns when they got back home to Guelph: another, family member of long acquaintance, shall I say, felt the need to send me some heartfelt advice:

“Learn something. Take one room, one piece of furniture, one out-building, and refinish it. Learn a new recipe. Walk a lot. Keep your mind and body active.”

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A walk in the woods goes a long way to staying healthy

“Good advice,” I replied. And it is. I could say I knew that; but a reminder is often needed. There was a kindly unspoken word in the initial message. But I knew what it was: dementia. I took the cue and said it to myself.

Yes, though to what extent at this point, I don’t know, there are these little signs of something going on; and maybe to some extent it comes with age, an age that I’m just now starting to own up to with myself. After all, I’m still a child at heart in a lot of ways, and that’s okay. But, I look in the mirror and can hardly believe what I see; I stand often enough before an open frig and wonder why; I have to make a daily “to do” list to keep on track.

Sound familiar?

But on the bright side, I’ve almost always led an active physical and mental life, though Heaven knows, I’ve spent way too much time sitting down at a keyboard.

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Sometimes, you just gotta do what you gotta do.

This long winter past involved a lot of getting on the tractor to snow-blow the driveway, often in the teeth of cold, blowing snow with no protection from the wind; and hours spent shoveling snow off various roofs.

And now that spring has finally arrived, I’ve already this week finally got into the garden to plant snow peas and potatoes.

Allow me to put my mentor hat on for a moment, with a little advice for young and old: eat healthy, stay active, interested and involved, exercise your brain as well as your body.

And you will be doing yourself and the world a big favor.

 

A version of this post was originally published in The Sun Times in May, 2018

 

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