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15th April 2016

Mental Health and Physical Activity

The American Journal Neurology has published an account of research into how levels of activity affect brain health as we get older.

The results are surprising: people who reported themselves as engaging in only light activity were seen to have experienced a decline equivalent to ten years in their cognitive ability as compared to those who reported moderate to intense levels of activity.

The author, Clinton B. Wright, MD, MS, of the University of Miami in Miami, Fla., and member of the American Academy of Neurology, said: “The number of people over the age of 65 in the United States is on the rise, meaning the public health burden of thinking and memory problems will likely grow. Our study showed that for older people, getting regular exercise may be protective, helping them keep their cognitive abilities longer.”

The research was done over a twelve year period. 876 people were surveyed for their reported frequency and intensity of exercise, and then tested over a five year interval for any cognitive decline.

The American study, although stating that more research is needed, concluded that “Physical activity is an attractive option to reduce the burden of cognitive impairment in public health because it is low cost and doesn’t interfere with medications,” said Wright. “Our results suggest that moderate to intense exercise may help older people delay ageing of the brain.”

The implications for this country are significant. We too have in increasing elderly population, and the health service struggles to meet the increasing costs of health care as our population ages. Significant financial savings, as well as improvements in our overall health may result if society were to promote more regular moderate activity in the population. Better mental and physical health would be the result.

Indeed, the government in Scotland is funding a collaboration with the mental health charity SAMH, to look at improving active exercise in those with mental and physical health problems.

The project is funded out of £150 million made available by the Scottish Government for improving mental health, and will run initially in three health board areas.

Participants will initially be offered interventions to build up their resilience and self-esteem, followed by a tailored 12 week programme of physical activity, designed around the person’s interests, abilities and level of fitness. The Chief executive of SAMH stated: “Our goal is to change behaviours, which is why this project embeds cognitive behaviour approaches within the physical activity programme, delivered by SAMH staff. This innovative intervention will ensure people build their knowledge and skills to engage with physical activity on a long term basis, helping people towards making active lifestyle choices for the future.”

Clearly increasing and maintaining physical activity and exercise at all ages, and particularly for services for older people, is an important goal for the future. It promises not only cheaper health maintenance but opportunities for a fuller and more independent life for us all.

Tony Clarke – QCS Expert Scottish Care Contributor


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