“Exercise is of benefit to older adults. It offers a number of benefits to the brain, and the body generally — and it actually serves as an initial step toward meditation.”
That’s according to Martha DiMaria, co-director of the Cardiovascular Outcomes, Circadian and Aging Laboratory at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. DiMaria has spent many years studying the ways in which aging affects the cardiovascular system, and in particular, how that process is affected by obesity and adverse sleep and other nutrition trends. She says she aims to help educate people about the impact of what we put into our bodies on their health.
One study DiMaria conducted found that cognitive dysfunction associated with sarcopenia and ageing was partly due to poor neuroendocrine balance.
The numbers of Americans over the age of 50 and their waistlines are increasing. DiMaria believes that while the data appears to paint a bleak picture, there are solutions to counteract the process — if people focus on their health first.
“We see a parallel here between physical and mental health,” she says. “Brain function in particular isn’t fully appreciated. Aging means change, but we often think of it as inevitable. It changes how we think, the kind of conversation we have, how we process information. We have cognitive dengue, which means that the brain has an imbalance between the glucose and the fat we get. We get less glucose in the brain than in the blood. Aging is hard on the brain, and that impacts cognition.”
The rise in brain health awareness is only growing in the US and globally. Research continues to show that regular exercise and good nutrition can reduce the risk of diseases. A third of adults over the age of 60 are overweight or obese, and DiMaria says a protein known as beta-glucan may aid those in reclaiming their health.
DiMaria explains that in the 19th century, the use of beta-glucan as a foot additive to shorten pants reduced the prevalence of “extreme poverty” in America’s cities during the Great Depression.
“As a product that’s very, very inexpensive, made of four amino acids that are present in large quantities, people would drink it with a straw to give it a chalky kind of consistency,” she says. “If you didn’t have an alcohol or tobacco habit, it would be a calorie-free drink. It gave them some protein and some energy, and it could actually be enjoyed.”
As a result, DiMaria says women over 70, otherwise referred to as “seniors,” were much more conscious of calorie intake in their declining years.
“Women, especially those aging in their 50s and 60s, were able to eat more plant-based foods and skim more calcium from milk,” she says. “It’s not just to do with the health of the brain. It’s the same as to do with the body. When you drink more complex carbohydrates, you actually eat less fat. When you eat more carbs, you eat less. It is evolutionary and here we are in 2019, and the way that our brains process information is similar to how it processes information.”
DiMaria is cautioning that if we simply watch our diets, we could just as easily crash diet.
“If you are eating a plant-based diet, and you really put in a lot of protein like the Mediterranean diet, you are going to get really, really skinny if you don’t eat dairy products,” she says. “So the danger comes if you just stick to your rules and you break them. We have this old adage: ‘Low calories do not equal low appetite.’ If you’re not putting the vitamins, nutrients and fiber into your body, you could miss out on the first part of brain and heart health that we desperately need.”