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Does lack of exercise lead to dementia?

A number of studies show that various forms of exercise help prevent dementia as we age.

77 year-old Gladys Ngwenya (L) winces as she chews on a piece of ginger before a 'Boxing Gogos' (Grannies) session hosted by the A Team Gym in Cosmo City in Johannesburg on September 19, 2017. (Photo by Gulshan Khan/AFP/Getty Images)

In 2013, the RAND Corporation decided to assign a monetary cost to dementia in the United States. The resulting study revealed that we've acquired a remarkable burden, paying between $157 billion to $215 billion annually, mostly by providing institutional and home-based care. The report also stated that these costs could more than double by 2040 if current trends continue. 


That’s just the financial cost. For anyone who's watched a family member or loved one battle dementia, the emotional toll is an even greater price to pay. The last time I saw my grandmother she was referring to me by my sister’s name. Soon after that, she was put in a facility; within weeks the nurses asked my family not to visit as it was too distressing—on the faculty. Calming her down after a visit was apparently too much work.

As with many incurable diseases, our elders are being sent away to die lonely and confused. This is not necessarily the family’s fault, as home care can be prohibitively expensive. Perhaps we don’t recognize that, barring a tragic accident, we too will be elders, faced with the dilemma our parents and grandparents are now confronting. This is where the whole 'do unto others' thing should be kicking in.

101-year-old Man Kaur from India celebrates after competing in the 100m sprint in the 100+ age category at the World Masters Games at Trusts Arena in Auckland on April 24, 2017. (Photo by Michael Bradley/AFP/Getty Images)

Yet we’re terribly short-sighted animals, focused more on immediate gratification than aging sustainably. Preventive practices may or may not help you stave off dementia; there is a certain level of faith required when it comes to realizing their potential benefit.

But there are things we do know. Recently, scientists have established links between sugar, high blood sugar levels, and alcoholism with dementia. In one way or another, all three of these studies are related to too much sugar being a primary cause of dementia.

Cutting down on sugar is one preventive measure for decreasing your risk for dementia. But there are other proactive means for improving memory skills and strengthening cognition now that also buffer against possible issues down the road. Abandon sugar, but put certain nutrients in. Learning a new language and musical instrument are powerful means for further education. Reading certainly does not hurt.

Brain training exercises have been clinically shown to reduce the risk of dementia by 30 percent. Being social helps you stay alert. Relying less on smartphone maps and orienting yourself spatially by learning various routes (as well as getting lost, on occasion) keeps your hippocampus engaged. And then, of course, there’s exercise.

Levels of the essential nutrient, choline, rise with an increased loss of nerve cells—a marker of Alzheimer’s disease. Last year, researchers at Goethe University Frankfurt had senior volunteers (aged 65-85) ride a stationary bicycle three times a week for thirty minutes over a twelve-week period; the control group did not exercise. The exercising group experienced stabilized choline levels, while the control saw an increase in this metabolite.

Another study from 2013 stresses the importance of cardiovascular exercise. Art Kramer, a neuroscientist who directs the University of Illinois’s Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, directed one group of older adults to exercise moderately for 45 minutes, three times a week. The control group ended up losing 1.5 percent of brain volume, while the exercising group increased brain volume by 2 percent. This increased volume resulted in better memory scores.

While varying levels of dementia affect over half of adults 85 and over, epidemiologist Bryan James told NPR that it’s not an inevitable aspect of aging. “It’s simply not pre-destined for all human beings. Lots of people live into their 90s and even 100s with no symptoms of dementia.”

Cardiovascular exercise has been studied on a number of occasions, but that’s not the only form that’s helpful. Besides keeping osteoporosis at bay and keeping spines and muscles strong and healthy, weight training is also beneficial for preventing dementia. One hundred Australian volunteers, all between 55 and 86 years of age, were part of a weight training study. The lifting group, which involved two workouts a week for six months, scored significantly higher than the control group, which only performed stretching exercises during that period. Unfortunately for hardcore fans of yoga, the control group experienced cognitive decline.

An elderly man practices tai chi on the frozen lake of Hou Hai in Beijing on January 23, 2018. (Photo by Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images)

Our body was designed by nature to engage with the environment at every stage of life. It makes sense that if we stopped moving our bodies, our brains would suffer. The successful navigation of your environment requires physical and cognitive engagement. Unfortunately, we’ve created societies that remove the physical element from our daily struggles. It would be foolish to think we wouldn’t suffer mental consequences.

In my role as a fitness instructor, I’m often asked what age people should begin various types of training. My answer is always the same: right now. I’ve watched too many people just start (or "get back in") to a fitness routine in their fifties and sixties. While better than never, incorporating a variety of exercise formats—cardiovascular, weight training, restorative and regenerative practices like yoga, meditation, Feldenkrais, and fascia release—should be a lifelong habit. Given all we know about the myriad benefits of movement on our brains and bodies, there really is no excuse.

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Derek Beres is the author of Whole Motion and creator of Clarity: Anxiety Reduction for Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles, he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

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What if Middle-earth was in Pakistan?

Iranian Tolkien scholar finds intriguing parallels between subcontinental geography and famous map of Middle-earth

Could this former river island in the Indus have inspired Tolkien to create Cair Andros, the ship-shaped island in the Anduin river?

Image: Mohammad Reza Kamali, reproduced with kind permission
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  • J.R.R. Tolkien himself hinted that his stories are set in a really ancient version of Europe.
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Giant whale sharks have teeth on their eyeballs

The ocean's largest shark relies on vision more than previously believed.

An eight-metre-long Whale shark swims with other fish at the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium on February 26, 2010 in Motobu, Okinawa, Japan.

Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • Japanese researchers discovered that the whale shark has "tiny teeth"—dermal denticles—protecting its eyes from abrasion.
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A massive star has mysteriously vanished, confusing astronomers

A gigantic star makes off during an eight-year gap in observations.

Image source: ESO/L. Calçada
Surprising Science
  • The massive star in the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy seems to have disappeared between 2011 and 2019.
  • It's likely that it erupted, but could it have collapsed into a black hole without a supernova?
  • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."

Or...

A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

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