For many parts of the U.S. and abroad this time of year marks the dead of the Winter season. It can bring brutally cold temperatures and make it hard to think about leaving the warm to go work out or just get to some exercise equipment. As I write this article it is -16 here in Minnesota with a -41 windchill! So believe me in saying its not always easy. But as we’ll see below we may have some rather simple options that can provide us with huge benefits.
Everyone knows walking is good exercise, but it has another benefit: a daily 20-minute walk can cut the risk of Dementia by 40%, studies are showing. In a previous article we wrote it shows that people’s number #1 fear as they get older is losing their mind.
Taking those findings a step further, neurologists at Jacksonville, Florida’s Mayo Clinic are studying whether getting patients immobilized by disease to walk can also help ward off mental decline.
Dr. Jay Van Gerpen, a neurologist who specializes in gait, is recruiting Parkinson’s patients for a study to help them stay on their feet and retain brain health.
“Walking is a window to the brain,”says Van Gerpen. Regular walking not only helps preserve brain function in healthy people, but also protects against further damage caused by Dementia, Alzheimer’s and diseases like Parkinson’s, a degenerative disease that causes tremors, motor impairment and cognitive decline.
When someone’s gait changes – steps get shorter or pace slows – that frequently indicates the brain is damaged. Thus, walking problems are common in those with Dementia and Parkinson’s, because these conditions cause brain cells to die.
Walking not only slows that progression, but helps brain cells recover by forming new connections, Van Gerpen said. Van Gerpen invented a laser device several years ago that helps Parkinson’s patients walk better.
The device attaches to walkers or canes and shoots a red laser beam in front of the person walking. Visual cues can help Parkinson’s patients focus on stepping over the line, they access the visual part of the brain, which bypasses the motor output area that isn’t working, Van Gerpen “Said.
The device was a game changer for Wayne Puckett of Clermont, California. Four years ago, the 48 year old started having tremors, followed by difficulty walking and memory problems.
Puckett said gait freezing was the biggest issue. “I would just come to a halt, especially at doorways,” he said. The former postal worker used to be able to memorize two zip codes worth of street addresses, but that ability was gone.
In March 2010, he went to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, where Dr Van Gerpen diagnosed him with a form of Parkinson’s and gave him a Mobilaser that attaches to his walker.
The first time Puckett used the Mobilaser, which is now distributed worldwide and costs $400, he couldn’t believe the difference. “I was almost walking like normal. I was in sheer amazement. It still amazes me.”
It helped in other ways, too. “When I wasn’t able to move as much, I noticed my brain was much worse,” Puckett said. “With the laser I can move, get around, and am definitely able to concentrate better.”
In a 2012 study, Van Gerpen’s team studied a small group of Parkinson’s patients who had difficulty walking. By using the laser, they cut in half both the time it took them to walk a course, and the number of times they came to a halt, said Van Gerpen. His new study aims to prove that the laser helps patients walk every day, over months and years.
“Getting these patients walking is extremely helpful because it helps the brain’s blood flow and reduces mental and muscle decline, ” said Dr. Nizam Razack, a neurosurgeon and Florida Hospital Celebrations Health who performs brain surgery on Parkinson’s patients to help improve their motor impairment.
But beyond helping those with Parkinson’s, a daily walk has broader implications for Americans who are developing Dementia at an epidemic rate, said Van Gerpen.
Dementia is on the rise not just because Americans are living longer, but because they have so much vascular disease. “Dementia is related to obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes,” he said. All these conditions impair blood flow to the brain.
“When blood flow in a large vessel to the brain gets blocked, a person has a stroke,” said Van Gerpen. “When small vessels get blocked, brain tissue also dies. You just don’t notice it at that moment.”
Walking reduces the risk of small vessel damage. That will delay the onset of dementia and help protect what function is left.
The device has also helped Kenneth Sikora of The Villages, put one foot in front of the other again.
Sikora, age 66, has lived with Parkinson’s for more than 20 years. He had been using a walker to get around “but not getting very far,” said his wife, Kathryn Sikora, who speaks for her husband because he has difficulty talking.
“Now, he’s up and moving hours a day as compared to not at all,” his wife said. Puckett estimates he’s walking at least three times as much, at double or triple the speed than before.
So as we’ve take in the information, we’ve seen that even a simple 20 minute walk a day could help us stave off Dementia at a rate of over 40%. Is that worth it to you? Who cant find 20 minutes a day to just walk! Find out more about the 4 ways our brains age and how we can take measures against it here. We hope this information can help you take a proactive approach to aging and put the outcome in your hands.