Aging In Arizona, Part 5: Staying Active Important For Healthy Aging

By Lou Gum, KAWC
Published: Friday, July 15, 2016 - 7:05am
Updated: Monday, July 18, 2016 - 2:14pm
Audio icon Download mp3 (8.91 MB)
(Photo Tinou Bao - CC BY 2.0)
Research suggests older brains thrive with the right combination of physical and social activity.

More Arizonans are living longer because medical advances in heart disease, cancer and diabetes keep their bodies going. But what about their brains? In our five-part series, Aging In Arizona, we explore what researchers are learning about the aging brain, the risks of developing dementia and latest treatments for it.

We hear so much unsettling news about Alzheimer’s and dementia in the elderly. So it’s nice when there is positive news about the aging brain.

Researchers used to think the brain stopped producing neurons after a certain age — that the cells just died off as we got older. Now research suggests older brains thrive with the right combination of physical and social activity.

It’s no different for the elderly that the brain is like a muscle — it gets stronger with use. And for some older adults, part of the remedy is bowling.

Irene Mechelke just rolled a strike and a spare to finish a game at Inca Lanes, Yuma's only bowling alley, and a nice air-conditioned reprieve on a hot summer afternoon.

She smiled as she talked and her eyes flash back and forth to the lanes as she watches for her turn.

"I'm 71. I had stage four breast cancer. I had a back operation two years ago. And I wanted to get back to bowling," Mechelke said.

Irene is very active, like most of the seniors at the alley. Besides bowling, she plays pool, rides her bike, walks every day and is involved with her church. Her husband was the more artistic one, she said. He died 10 years ago and she lost her brother just last year.

"He had dementia. But I try to keep my mind active. Read. Do crossword puzzles. Just try to keep going. I may end up with it. I probably will. But take my word for it — it’s not going to slow me down," she said.

Physical activity is considered the most critical factor to keep senior neurons firing. Even if you’re having a not-so-great bowling day, like 70-year-old Sharon Best.

Best’s mother and grandmother had Alzheimer's. She’s concerned about it, but she thinks her best strategy is to keep on the move. And she wants to be around others.

"You've got to have people around. Otherwise you get stagnant," Best said.

There’s truth in that. Older brains also thrive on contact with others.

A dozen seniors sat in a circle at Daybreak Adult Care Center, run by Catholic Social Services in Yuma. Aides encourage the group to follow along with the a workout video.

Isabel Nelson, 82, only half participates in the exercise.

"I’d like to be, but I’m not," said Nelson.

Nelson is a former nurse. She started to come here five months ago after her husband died and her son encouraged her to move to Yuma.

"And he said go to the senior center. I said, I don't want to go to the senior center. And I love it," said Nelson.

Nelson said she’s always kept busy, and the center provides plenty of interaction with her peers.

"Because I'm an RN, they come to me with their little problems and things that I can't do much about. But I just love being around them," she said.

And Nelson loves engaging with them. Her brain likes it, too. The more social she is, the more her brain makes new connections.

Jorge Merced directs senior theater groups in New York City and he’s on the board of the National Center for Creative Aging. Merced was in Yuma last month for an Arizona symposium to share best practices for the aging community. Merced believes new knowledge about the seniors and their brains shatters the stereotype that the elderly are solitary people in decline.

"It breaks the idea of isolation — that you no longer participate. That an older adult is a drain on the economic life of a community — it’s the other way around. That is why we concentrate on the assets and strengths of as opposed to the faults and deficits of growing older," he said.

These are good things to keep in mind — especially, considering that 10,000 people in this country turn 65 every day.

If you like this story, Donate Now!

Like Arizona Science Desk on Facebook