Expert’s Corner: McGee on exercise benefits for elderly

New study shows physical activity boosts brain health

By Lisa M. Larson and Bryan Goodchild

UMass Medical School Communications

November 20, 2012

Geriatrician Sarah McGee, MD, MPH, had recently finished reading a compelling new study inthe American Heart Association’s journal Stroke on the cognitive benefits of exercise for older people, when living proof walked into her office.

An octogenarian with numerous health issues arrived for her checkup brimming with energy, looking great and feeling good, after just a few months on a regular physical fitness routine.

“It was like I saw a different person,” said Dr. McGee, clinical associate professor of medicine, director of the Geriatrics Education Resource Center and director of education for the Division of Geriatrics in the Department of Medicine.

“She’s been doing half-hour walks every day on her street,” McGee said. “In the last three months, she’s been doing this pretty consistently. Now she is like a new person. She’s got a new lease on life.”

McGee said her patient is in better spirits and enjoying more interpersonal interactions with family and friends.

The significant impact of exercise on brain health was documented in the Stroke study released online this month. The research, led by Dr. Ana Verdelho at the University of Lisbon, Santa Maria Hospital in Portugal, followed senior citizens living independently who engaged in 90 minutes of physical activity a week. The authors concluded that exercise reduced vascular dementia risk by 40 percent.

“I think this is yet another piece of evidence to encourage people to exercise,” said McGee, who was not involved in the research.

The study did not show an exercise benefit for non-vascular disease such as Alzheimer’s. What’s also interesting, McGee noted, is the degree of difficulty for an older person to begin an exercise routine later in life.

“The generation of older adults in this cohort are not people that grew up with exercise as we know it today,” she said. “It’s a pretty hard sell for someone who has not exercised all their life span, all of a sudden when they turn 75, to suggest they go out and exercise.”

But the gains are great, McGee said, and activities such as gardening, cleaning the house and running errands are ways to get moving. Older people should be cautious about starting a new routine, particularly if they have any cognitive impairment, and should consult a doctor first, she said.