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The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Waste

They say with age comes wisdom. But what if it doesn't? For the 6.5 million Americans over age 65 diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, "wisdom" comes with a hefty price tag. The affected individual, their families, friends, caregivers, doctors, nurses and fitness experts all play key roles in maintaining overall health in one who has become a victim of their own mind. The mind is a terrible thing to waste but with the help of the aforementioned professionals, encouraging a balanced diet, movement and socialization can greatly decrease its progression and increase functionality in those suffering the worst.

What exactly is Alzheimer's? Simply put, it is a degenerative disorder that destroys memory and mental functions. The brain has "centers" that control different things. Communication with the rest of the body takes place via dendrites and synapses which are tiny cells at the ends of nerve cells (neurons). These cells send electrical impulses to the muscle fibers (myofibrils) causing a reaction (similar to the sneeze we discussed last week). When the nerve cells die, the "signal" can no longer transmit messages and, in some cases, they are ones that affect memory leading to a diagnosis that most fear...Alzheimer's disease or dementia.

I'm sure we all know or have heard of someone who is battling or has fought with either Alzheimer's disease or dementia. Maybe a parent or other relative, friend, spouse or co-worker has been stricken with one or both. It can wreak havoc on people's lives and turn worlds upside down. Many times the outcome is bleak as individuals deteriorate and lose their identities or sense of self. But it doesn't always have to be this way. This weeks segment will hopefully change the negative aspect to a more positive one.

Being a fitness blog means that exercise plays a role in each and every post. We have also learned how important being active is in keeping both the body and mind healthy. For a person with Alzheimer's that is even more important. The body does what the brain tells it to do, so keeping someone with Alzheimer's moving is crucial in delaying the nasty effects of the disease.

So what kinds of exercises can these persons do? The answer is: anything! Any movement is a good thing because it forces the brain and the muscles to communicate with each other and, in turn, helps initiate conversation between patient and caretaker. This alone can greatly reduce symptoms in early stages and lessen its overall severity. However, remember to start with simple activities and commands and progress when necessary. Cue frequently and assist by demonstrating the end result in steps so as not to confuse them unnecessarily. Adding music is another great way to get them moving. Using a particular artist, genre or song may be like a blast from the past when mental function was at its peak. And who doesn't enjoy that?

What is most important though, is to encourage them to stay active and praise them when baby steps are accomplished. Make sure that whatever you choose to do, do it together to build comraderie. Just as it takes a team of professionals to rage war on the disease, fitness is a team effort too. Understand that sometimes (especially in later stages) having them mirror you during the exercises adds to the challenge, so merely getting them to move is a bonus. Please note they might have a short attention span so a little creativity (and lots of patience) may be dictated to maintain fitness levels. Also be aware that some might have a child's mentality so when planning an "outing," think about what you liked to do when you were a kid. Oftentimes, memories from their own childhood are very vivid whereas what they did yesterday is extremely hazy, so pick basic gross motor skills and develop more difficult ones as the easiest are mastered. Nobody I know ran before they walked or jumped before they stood up, so don't expect that from them either.

If they have arrived at a bedridden state, playing patty cake or exchanging high fives both stimulate the brain and are fun. At this point, you may have to manually move their limbs to sustain flexibility and functionality, but, as I said before...any movement is a step in the right direction and establishes a connection between victim and caretaker.

In conclusion, a diagnosis is not always an immediate death sentence...lets not treat it as one. Instead of putting its sufferers all alone in facilities, show compassion by allowing them to be involved like everyone else. There are a number of ways an individual with Alzheimers disease or dementia can live among us, even if for just a moment, free from their own minds and they don't always involve exercise. A mind is a terrible thing to waste so don't let them slip away. Get up, get out and get does wonders for both the body and the brain. Hope you'll join me again next week. We'll talk soon!

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