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Links Between Exercise And Mental Fitness In Older Adults

Dr. Denise Park

By Sam Baker, KERA Morning Edition Host

Dallas, TX –

Exercise can help maintain physical fitness as we get older, but can it also help mentally? The University of Texas at Dallas Center for Vital Longevity is studying that very question in an ongoing research project. In a KERA Monday health segment, Sam Baker talked with the co-director of the center. Dr. Denise Park says opinions about the impact of exercise on mental cognition have changed over the years.

Dr. Denise Park: There was actually interest in this topic like 20, 25 years ago. The data seemed pretty clear that it didn't improve function. And then in about the past decade, people revisited the question with very sensitive techniques to image the brain and to measure cognitive function, and show that, in fact, moderate, really moderate, even mild exercise, really improves cognitive function - particularly in sedentary people, obviously.

Sam: What led to going back and looking at this again?

Dr. Park: Animal literature. There was actually some literature that aged rats who were exercised improved their ability to find their way through mazes.

Sam: There was a recent report in the New York Times about recent studies, the result of which were encouraging about the impact of physical activity

Dr. Park: The literature, for sure, showing that people who exercised are also slower, possibly, to reach the stage of dementia, but there's not a lot of data. It's very clear that active people have better minds, but maybe because they're not declining or suffering some kind of age-related neurological disorder. So you really need controlled studies where people are randomly assigned to one condition or another, where you're in the "walk" group or "don't walk group.

Sam: And the study that you're doing at U.T. Dallas, this is the don't walk group?

Dr. Park: We recruit sedentary adults or "not super active" adults - sedentary may be too strong of a word - but "not super active" adults who are 60 years and older. And then they have to agree to be randomly assigned to a quilting and exercise condition, where they're taught to quilt in a very aggressive fashion in the sense that they're given lots of training and they're pushed pretty hard but they do remarkable things. Other people are assigned to a group that's exercise only. And the third group is a control group that neither exercises nor quilts.

Sam: Are you looking at if you're not engaged in much activity, whether or not it's too late to start in life?

Dr. Park: We're pretty sure it's never too late to start to engage. We are trying to measure does mental engagement or exercise alone what do they do for you? And then what do they do for you together, is there some multiplicative effect where you get this super cognitive effect for participating in both?

Sam: Because there are plenty of people now who are becoming aware of this issue and are saying to themselves "Well, I've got to start doing more puzzles or taking up a hobby or some type of skill to stimulate the brain".

Dr. Park: Well, one of the reasons I'm interested in this is everybody thinks engaging in a lot of mental activity is facilitative of the mind, and I think that too as a neuroscientist. Yet the evidence that makes a difference is modest at best. For instance, there's no evidence that people who do crossword puzzles and have done them for 20 years and are super crossword addicts have better cognition than people who don't do these puzzles. There've been some exhaustive studies on this. Very, very hard to do research on this because how you randomly assign people and actually follow them to be in a complex cognitive situation for a long time?

Sam: I do wonder if the more aware we are about effort to find out more about this and improve our quality of life as we get older, whether that causes people to have unrealistic expectations?

Dr. Park: People often think there's a magic bullet out there that could change their lives if only they did X, Y or Z. You know, that's not likely to be true. Nevertheless, the great part about being mentally stimulated and exercising is there's very little downside to either one of those things. They're, at the worst, harmless. And at the best, they expand your life and increase your connection to people and society. And at the very best, they improve your mind.

Dr. Denise Park is co-director of the Center for Vital Longevity at the University of Texas at Dallas.

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