As World War II raged through Africa and Europe, young Army nurse Mildred McGregor and her unit cared for wounded front-line soldiers from the desert to Europe to the Russian frontier. Now 88, she’s capturing her memories of that time on paper, through a writing group for the elderly at the University of Michigan’s Turner Senior Resource Center.

But even as she records the story of the terrible war so that younger generations can prevent it from happening again, she may be helping herself in more ways than she knows. By keeping her brain active and focused on her writing, giving herself goals and getting involved in new activities, she may be staving off or slowing memory loss, dementia and physical disability.

In fact, says U-M physician Norman Foster, M.D., who specializes in diseases of the aging brain, even though there’s no sure way to prevent Alzheimer’s disease or other brain disorders, evidence suggests that seniors can cut their risk by keeping both brain and body occupied.

“It is true that if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it, and so it’s important for elderly people to be involved in all sorts of community activities and keep physically active,” says Foster, a professor of neurology who heads the Cognitive Disorders Clinic at the U-M Health System’s Geriatrics Center.

He is also associate director of the Michigan Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center and a senior research scientist at the U-M’s Institute of Gerontology. “As we learn more about the brain, it appears to be true that the more we use it, the more benefits we have,” he explains.

“There’s good epidemiological evidence that elderly individuals who keep physically and mentally active have less risk of developing memory problems and even less risk of Alzheimer’s itself,” he adds. “There are also increasing numbers of studies that show that people who do have Alzheimer’s or other dementias benefit from physical activities and limit their disability.”

With 5 percent of people over the age of 65 already affected by memory problems that hamper their everyday life, 30 percent of people over age 85 suffering from some sort of dementia, and the country’s elderly population growing, the importance of keeping body and brain healthy has never been greater. Though some memory loss is normal, it’s not inevitable.

So, Foster urges his patients — and all seniors — to get involved in activities, and to walk a mile or exercise for half an hour each day. And, whether it’s through the U-M or a local Agency on Aging, he advises everyone to join programs that can help keep brains sharp and bodies fit.

Neuroscience research and other investigations into the brain’s function have yielded important clues in recent years about why active older people often do better overall, Foster explains.

“Social activities are important to the elderly because it stimulates their activities, and their brain function,” he notes. And social interaction with other people or involvement in new mind-based activities prompts the brain to function in new ways as people express their internal thoughts. Studies on these effects and more are under way at U-M, led by Foster and his colleagues. Many are open to U-M Geriatrics Center patients.

More research will be needed to see if a clear long-term physical effect can be shown to back up observations made across groups of older people, Foster adds, but today’s seniors don’t need to wait for scientific proof of a specific effect to reap the general benefits of staying active.

Volunteer work is a great option for older people looking to stimulate their brains, Foster says. “It gives them an opportunity to interact with people in other age groups and outside their family, it stimulates interest, and it can be a great help to the community,” he explains.

Kathryn Flynn, 91 years old, has taken that message to heart. Along with participating in the same writing class as Mildred McGregor, she volunteered to help Turner Center staff compile a directory of services and activities for seniors in the Ann Arbor area, and helps spread the word about U-M groups to others in her age range.

“If you just sit around and don’t do anything, I consider that very boring,” she laughs. “I can’t speak for everybody, because maybe some people enjoy just resting, but I think you can do too much of that. People should keep active and do the things that they enjoy, possibly some things that they weren’t able to do when they were employed — even start new careers if that’s the way they want to go.”

Another Turner volunteer, 78-year-old Elza Bryan, keeps going with her writing and her Michigan Committee for the Blind work despite vision problems that have left her legally blind. “My brain is much more lively now, so to say, because I have to really think and there is now a goal of what I want to do,” she explains. She’s also writing an account of her time growing up in Latvia, her father’s experiences in World War I, and her own memories of World War II, so that her grown children and granddaughter can share their family history.

Although some seniors might see their existing health or transportation problems as obstacles to getting involved in activities, Foster notes that there are many options available. “Even people with physical disabilities can keep mentally active by doing crossword puzzles, reading the newspaper, keeping involved in social activities, and taking advantage of public transportation,” he says, adding that classes, cards, chess and conversation all count as brain stimulators.

Something as simple as moderate movement around the house can help keep muscles and balance going, and physical activity like regular walking can help keep diabetes and heart disease in check. And for those who can’t drive, many communities have senior transport programs to get people to activity centers, educational institutions and shopping.

For those already facing memory loss, it’s especially crucial to keep going, Foster says. “People who have memory problems tend to withdraw from activities, so it’s particularly important that they be involved in social activities and things that are interesting. Some have called dementia the ‘most boring’ of all diseases to have, so it’s important to get these people involved.”

All in all, instead of seeing age-related memory loss and disability as inevitable, older adults should see their mental and physical health as very much within their own control, Foster says. Those who take on the challenge of keeping occupied may be surprised at what they can achieve.

“Overall, it’s important for elderly individuals to learn more activities, and do things that they haven’t tried before,” he concludes. “This is an opportunity to take risks and explore things that they haven’t had time to do before. In our usual activities as adults, we spend so much time just working at our jobs that we have trouble looking beyond the horizon, or finding time to explore other parts of our personality. Aging permits us that opportunity.”

Facts about aging, memory loss and staying active:

  • By 2030, the number of older Americans will jump to 70 million, or one in five Americans.
  • About 5 percent of all people over age 65 have some form of dementia, and the number doubles with every five years above 65.
  • About 30 percent of people over 80 have dementia.
  • Alzheimer’s disease causes more than half of all dementia. About four million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease, including 1 percent of 65-year-olds and up to half of people over 85.
  • Among people 70 to 74 years old, 64 percent participate in five to seven different social activities in a two-week period, compared with 38 percent among people over 85.
  • About 51 percent of people aged 65 to 74 engage in no physical leisure-time activity, and the number rises to 65 percent in those aged 75 and older.
  • The Healthy People 2010 program’s target is to increase levels of activity so that no more than 20 percent of all adults engage in no leisure physical activity.

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