Go Jump in a Lake!
Old Man Winter has finally given way to summer sun and outdoor fun, and for people living with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other cognitive impairment conditions, there are many good reasons to make the most of it.
“Summer is a wonderful time for people living with many types of cognitive impairment to get outside and be as active as they can,” says Sandra Weintraub, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and clinical core leader in the Mesulam Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center.
While you’re out, make sure it’s aerobic exercise you’re doing, as recent studies have shown 30 minutes of sustained activity on a regular basis may offer greater protection from dementia than weight training or interval exercises, says Dr. Weintraub. She says moderate aerobic exercise has the potential to boost brain power and reasoning among people with mild to moderate impairment that Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases can cause.
Aerobic activity a few days a week can have a significant improvement on overall quality of life for people with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, and can even delay disease onset and slow progression for people at higher risk, such as those with a family history, she says. Those with other cognitive impairments may benefit, as well.
And, no surprises here: It’s good for families and caregivers, too.
So, go jump in a lake! Or a pool. Or find something else if swimming isn’t your thing. But whatever you choose to do, make sure to talk with your physician or provider first.
“The risk of falls and accidents is something that people need to be aware of when planning activities,” says Dr. Weintraub. “Exercise is important for quality of life — and may actually help reduce the likelihood of a fall in the long term — but people need to be sure any activities are conducted within the limits prescribed by their doctor.”
Boosting Brain Function
The reasons for exercise’s protective power in people with cognitive decline aren’t entirely known, but there are several well-documented benefits. These include increased blood flow to the brain, which encourages quicker thinking; activation of genes associated with neuronal growth; release of chemicals thought to protect brain cells; elevated mood; and more.
“The research is still unclear about exactly why exercise is so beneficial for people with cognitive impairment, but we do know that it has many neurobiological benefits,” says Dr. Weintraub. “Physical activity tends to boost brain functioning in all populations, and adults with a history of regular physical activity have a lower risk for cognitive impairment later in life.”
Find a Friend
In addition to physical exercise, summer also brings increased opportunities to socialize in different settings.
“It is very important for people to avoid isolation,” says Dr. Weintraub. “Summer is a great time not just for walks, but maybe to take a walk with a friend.”
Whatever the socializing activity, “the key is to do something that challenges you,” says Dr. Weintraub. “Sitting and reading a book isn’t good enough. Discuss it with your friends. Join a book club.”
Try a painting class. Try photography. Learn about Civil War History. In general, it’s best to pursue classes or group activities to maximize the benefits to your brain health, she says. Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Health & Fitness Center offers a variety of aerobic activities and support groups at no cost for people with Parkinson’s and their caregivers. Participants have to register in advance, and a physician’s authorization and health questionnaire are required.
Whatever activities people with cognitive impairments and their caregivers select, it’s important to remember also that you’re not alone, says Dr. Weintraub. They can and should seek support groups and classes, she says.
Northwestern Medicine’s Mesulam Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Feinberg School of Medicine, a major center for research on cognitive aging and dementia, provides opportunities for research and has pioneered innovative quality of life programs for patients and caregivers. The center provides educational information about what patients and caregivers could expect over the course of the disease.
Treatment and support are also available through Northwestern Medicine Neurobehavior and Memory Clinic [link: https://www.nm.org/conditions-and-care-areas/neurosciences/neurobehavior-and-memory-clinic] and Northwestern Medicine Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorder Center.
“We know so much more about ways to improve quality of life for people living with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases,” says Dr. Weintraub. “People should talk with their doctors and get outside while the weather is nice.”