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Older people in good shape have fitter brains

Seventy- to eighty-year-olds who train for better fitness are better at solving cognitive tasks and are less likely to suffer cognitive impairment.

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“Our findings suggest that being fit can protect against mild cognitive impairment in older people,” says Ekaterina Zotcheva.

Just before Christmas, Zotcheva defended her doctoral dissertation on exercise and brain health at the  Norwegian University of Science and Technology, NTNU. The day before the defence, the last study for her doctoral degree was published in the highly regarded Sports Medicine journal.

The article is just one of three recent research articles from NTNU that show how important it is for the brain to stay in good physical shape as you get older. Common to all three articles is that they are based on data from the world’s largest training study for older adults, the Generation 100 study from the Cardiac Exercise Research Group.

Dementia risk

“The Generation 100 study has been going on for almost ten years now. After the study participants had been exercising for five years, we tested the cognitive function of almost 1000 of them.”

“The men and women who had maintained or increased their physical fitness during the study had better brain health than those whose fitness had declined over the five years,” says Zotcheva.

The cognitive test that the participants took is the same one that is often used to check whether people are at risk of developing dementia.

The test assesses short-term memory, execution function and the ability to orient oneself in time and space. Scoring below a certain number indicates a risk of mild cognitive impairment.

“We know that mild cognitive impairment can lead to dementia for some individuals. The greater the increase in a participant’s fitness level during the five years of the study, the lower their probability was of developing mild cognitive impairment,” says Zotcheva.

Better at problem solving

Good conditioning appears to be an important prerequisite for good brain function in the elderly in the other two research articles as well. In both of these studies, the researchers tested the brain health of more than 100 of the participants in the Generation 100 study at start-up and after one, three and five years of training.

“Participants who were in good shape, both when the study started and later in the study, had a faster reaction time. The ones who improved their fitness level gained a somewhat better working memory,” says NTNU professor Asta Håberg.

The ability to solve cognitive problems was tested using the web-based Memoro platform, which Håberg developed in collaboration with neuropsychologist Tor Ivar Hansen.

Less brain atrophy

Håberg has been involved in the work with all three recent research articles. In the third study, the researchers performed MRI scans of the participants’ brains to see how the brain volume and thickness of the cerebral cortex changed throughout the study. Here, too, the most energetic participants came out best.

“Participants who were in good shape when the study started had a thicker cerebral cortex after one, three and five years, as compared with those who had lower maximum oxygen uptake. But we didn’t find any effect from increasing fitness during the study,” says Håberg.

The cerebral cortex is the outermost layer of the brain and is important for several important brain functions, such as attention, ability to make choices, working memory, abstract thinking and memory. This part of the brain becomes thinner with age, and thinning of the cerebral cortex in different areas is linked to different types of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease and frontotemporal dementia.

Fitness more important than type of exercise

All 70- to 77-year-olds in Trondheim were invited to the Generation 100 study in 2012. Those who agreed to participate were randomly assigned to five years of exercise of various kinds. One group would primarily do high intensity intervals, a second group would mainly go for walks or do other exercise with moderate intensity, and the last group would try to follow the activity recommendations of the health authorities to be physically active for at least 150 minutes each week.

The first two groups were followed up most closely by the researchers, and were offered two organized training sessions each week. The NTNU researchers looked beyond the connection between fitness and brain health and also investigated whether the type of training follow-up that participants received made a difference.

“Our results show that organized training follow-up may have given older men, but not older women, better cognitive function and lowered the probability of mild cognitive impairments. But all in all, it seems that the most important thing is that you actually train in a way that increases your fitness, regardless of whether you get organized help to be physically active or not,” says Zotcheva.

Less brain atrophy than expected

“In the groups that received follow-up with high-intensity training and training with moderate intensity, respectively, we found somewhat greater loss of brain volume in deep areas of the brain than among those who trained themselves. But we have to emphasize that everyone in the Generation 100 study – regardless of the form of exercise they did – had less brain loss than expected for people in their 70s. The group that trained on their own without organized follow-up had the least shrinkage in the hippocampus and thalamus,” Håberg says.

The training follow-up in Generation 100 was not decisive for the participants’ ability to solve cognitive tasks.

“The groups that were able to attend organized training didn’t perform any better than the group that trained on their own on various tasks, such as remembering where an object is located, memorizing words, processing information quickly or planning,” says Håberg.

Maintained good cognitive function

“It’s still worth noting that the 70-77-year-old participants on average had the same cognitive abilities after five years as at start-up, and that during the study period they even improved on some of the tests. The results show that being in good shape like the Generation 100 participants were, is important for maintaining good brain function,” Håberg says.

The training effect thus seems to be greatest for people who enter retirement age in good shape, and exercise that improves fitness can provide further benefits. So how should the elderly train to get in better shape?

“Several paths can lead to that goal, and the most important factor is to find an activity you enjoy and can continue with over time. In order to maintain or increase your fitness, you should in any case exercise regularly in a way that gets you out of breath and sweaty,” says Zotcheva.

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How to help children build a growth mindset

Consider these three tips to help children build a growth mindset.

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A new year is a perfect time to consider the habits you want to keep and the ones you’d like to develop. One resolution to consider is helping your children develop a growth mindset this year.

“We know one of the greatest boosts to parents’ confidence over the past year came from knowing their children’s whole selves are being nurtured, and we want to see that trend continue,” said Carter Peters from KinderCare Learning Center’s education team. “A growth mindset helps children try new things despite fear of failure. It’s the kind of thinking that allows inventors and creative thinkers to get excited about trying something new and ensures they have the cognitive flexibility and problem-solving skills to work through hurdles.”

Adults can often easily spot when children are engaged in creative thinking and prideful of their work, but that confidence may be lost as failures turn into insecurities. By nurturing a growth mindset and showing children they can learn and develop new skills in any area, it better sets them up for long-term success.

Consider these three tips to help children build a growth mindset:

Photo by Markus Spiske from Unsplash.com

1. Praise effort

It’s easy to fall into the habit of praising successes. However, praising effort encourages children to try new things without the fear of failing. It also teaches children personal growth and achievement are possible, even if their overall effort wasn’t a success.

“Young children often get excited to try something new,” Peters said. “By praising effort and showing children they’ll still be loved and valued despite the outcome, you can reframe how they approach challenges and teach them that difficult doesn’t mean impossible.”

2. Encourage the process

People often withhold praise until there’s a result, which leads children to hurriedly scribble a picture to hold up for a “good job” instead of taking time to focus on their efforts. When children know adults will encourage them during the process, instead of only upon the achievement, they’re more likely to try new things or master a new skill. For example, try providing encouragement such as, “I can see you’re focused on drawing that tree. It looks so lifelike because you’re putting so much thought into what you’re doing.” Once their project is finished, continue the encouragement by hanging up their artwork or school projects in a prominent place.

3. Model a growth mindset

You can model a growth mindset for children by narrating your actions when you are facing a challenge: “I am having a difficult time putting this shelf together, but it’s OK. I’ll take a break then read the instructions again.” Remove negative words from your vocabulary, such as “I can’t” or “I’m stupid.” Even when you are joking, children may not be able to tell the difference. You can also ask your children to join you in problem-solving. Take time to hear their ideas and try them even if you think they won’t work. This not only supports the development of their growth mindset, but the quality time and encouragement reinforces their sense of self-worth and builds confidence.

For more tips to help children develop a growth mindset, visit kindercare.com.

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Signs of a Healthy Marriage

Although there are many different ways to define a healthy marriage, these three qualities are essential for any lasting and fulfilling relationship.

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A healthy marriage is built on trust, respect, and communication. Couples with these qualities in their relationship tend to be more satisfied with their marriage and overall life. They also report feeling closer to their partner and having stronger well-being. With 2.3 out of every 1000 people in the US experiencing divorce in 2022, it is important to frequently check in on the health of your marriage.

Although there are many different ways to define a healthy marriage, these three qualities are essential for any lasting and fulfilling relationship.

Signs of a Healthy Marriage

A healthy marriage is built on trust, communication, and mutual respect. If you and your partner can effectively communicate and share a mutual level of respect, then your relationship is off to a good start. Trust is also important in a healthy marriage, as it allows you and your partner to feel secure in your relationship and rely on each other.

Many other signs can indicate whether or not a marriage is healthy. For example, couples who can spend quality time together and enjoy shared activities usually do well. Couples who can openly discuss their relationship with each other and work through difficulties together are also more likely to have a happy and healthy marriage. Finally, marriages, where both partners feel like they can be themselves without judgment from their spouse tend to be the strongest and most lasting.

Freedom to be yourself

In a healthy marriage, partners feel free to be themselves. They don’t have to put on a facade or pretend to be someone they’re not. They can be open and honest with each other and feel comfortable sharing their thoughts, feelings, and desires.

Both partners should pursue their interests and hobbies without compromising or sacrificing for the sake of the relationship. There’s no need to agree on everything – in fact, it’s healthy to have some separate interests – but overall, both partners should feel like they’re able to be true to themselves within the relationship.

Lots of good communication

In a healthy marriage, partners can communicate effectively. It means expressing needs and wants and listening and responding to what the other person is saying. There are mutual respect’s opinions, even if there are disagreements. Couples in a healthy marriage feel comfortable communicating with each other about both the good and the bad.

Good sex life

A good sex life can be a major sign of a healthy marriage. A lack of sexual activity can be an early warning sign that something is wrong in the relationship. Often, couples who have a good sex life are more connected emotionally and physically. They are also more likely to trust each other and communicate openly.

Trust in each other

In any relationship, trust is essential. Without trust, there is no foundation for the relationship to grow. In a marriage, trust is even more important. Trusting your spouse means you feel confident in their ability to support you emotionally and financially. It also means that you feel safe sharing your innermost thoughts and feelings with them.

When you trust your spouse, you know they have your best interests. You feel comfortable being yourselves around each other and sharing your hopes, dreams, and fears. Openness and honesty in your relationship allow you to be vulnerable with each other. This vulnerable honesty creates a deeper level of intimacy in your marriage.

When you trust each other, you can be more forgiving when mistakes are made. You know that everyone makes mistakes and that nobody is perfect. You also understand that your spouse is human and capable of making mistakes like anyone else. If they make a mistake, you are more likely to forgive them because you know they are sorry and will try not to make the same mistake again.

Trust is one of the most important foundations of a healthy marriage. If you want your marriage to thrive, build trust in each other.

A successful, strong marriage takes work, but with communication, trust, respect, vulnerability, and affection as its core components, you can together create a partnership that will be long-lasting.

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Obesity linked to macular degeneration

Immune cells are also activated when the body is exposed to stressors such as excess fat in obesity, making being overweight the number one non-genetic risk factor for developing AMD, after smoking.

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A Canadian study published in the prestigious journal Science elucidates a new molecular mechanism that may cause age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

The research at Hôpital Maisonneuve-Rosement, in Montreal, shows how life stressors such as obesity reprogram immune system cells and make them destructive to the eye as it ages.

“We wanted to know why some people with a genetic predisposition develop AMD while others are spared,” said Université de Montréal ophtalmology professor Przemyslaw (Mike) Sapieha, who led the study by his postdoctoral fellow Dr. Masayuki Hata.

“Although considerable effort has been invested in understanding the genes responsible for AMD, variations and mutations in susceptibility genes only increase the risk of developing the disease, but do not cause it,” Sapieha explained.

“This observation suggests that we must gain a better understanding of how other factors such as environment and lifestyle contribute to disease development.”

AMD is a major cause of irreversible blindness worldwide and affected approximately 196 million people in 2020. It comes in two forms:

  • dry AMD, characterized by the accumulation of fatty deposits at the back of the eye and the death of nerve cells in the eye,
  • and wet AMD, which is characterized by diseased blood vessels that develop in the most sensitive part of the sight-generating tissue, called the macula.

Contact with pathogens

It is already known that the immune system in the eye of a person with AMD becomes dysregulated and aggressive. Normally, immune cells keep the eye healthy, but contact with pathogens such as bacteria and viruses can make them go awry.

At the same time, immune cells are also activated when the body is exposed to stressors such as excess fat in obesity, making being overweight the number one non-genetic risk factor for developing AMD, after smoking.

In their study, Sapieha and Hata used obesity as a model to accelerate and exaggerate the stressors experienced by the body throughout life.

They found that transient obesity or a history of obesity leads to persistent changes in the DNA architecture within immune cells, making them more susceptible to producing inflammatory molecules.

“Our findings provide important information about the biology of the immune cells that cause AMD and will allow for the development of more tailored treatments in the future,” said Hata, now an ophthalmology professor at Kyoto University, in Japan.

The researchers hope their discovery will lead other scientists to broaden their interest beyond obesity-related diseases to other diseases characterized by increased neuroinflammation, including Alzheimer’s disease and multiple sclerosis.

About this study

“Past history of obesity triggers persistent epigenetic changes in innate immunity and exacerbates neuroinflammation,” by Mike Sapieha and Masayuki Hata, was published in Science.

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