Learning new tricks from old rats

If it worked for rats, why not me?

That’s what I said after reading about a study that showed treadmill exercise in older rats prevents the slowed movements that come with age, and can restore movement even after periods of inactivity.

Yep, even rats, older ones no less, are coming to the conclusion it pays to stay active. The treadmill — walking, jogging, running — is good for us.

Jennifer Arnold, of Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, recently presented the findings at Neuroscience 2013, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience and the world’s largest source of emerging news about brain science and health.

“Our study shows that treadmill exercise could be a useful treatment to not just maintain, but actually improve mobility in the elderly,” said Arnold. “This could provide a relatively easy, non-drug approach to help people remain active as they age.”

What’s not to like about that? I’m usually suspicious of someone claiming they know how to improve my health because usually, they’re selling something. But in this case, they’re not pitching a super drink, super supplement or super food that will make us like, well, Superman.

So what is Arnold pitching?

Nothing more than the best way to stay healthy and strong as we grow older: Exercise.

Here’s the deal. As the years pass by, we gradually lose our speed, strength, agility and quickness. Bounding, leaping and jumping become actions of the past. There’s a real name for this, and it’s not called “old age syndrome.” It’s called bradykinesia. I’m not making this up. Bradykinesia means “slowness of movement and is one of the cardinal manifestations of Parkinson’s disease.”

An estimated 50 percent of people over the age of 85 experience the disorder that impairs their movement and increases risk of injuries and death. As people live longer, more of the population will suffer the symptoms of aging.

Other than an act of God, there’s no way to prevent aging. As they say, no one gets out of here alive. But we can delay the effects of our years here on Earth.

 Arnold and her friends at  Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center examined the effect of treadmill exercise on movement impairments in rats. They found that just 12 consecutive days of treadmill activity in elderly rats was enough to improve their ability to get around. The activity was beneficial even in rats that had previously been inactive, reversing the effects of age on their movement abilities.

It’s not that a treadmill is something magical. You don’t have to be on a treadmill to enjoy the benefits of walking and running. Just get up and go.

“This finding suggests that similar treatments could be effective in humans, preventing or reversing the effects of aging on motor ability,” the release said.

There’s more studies to be done, but the authors believe that dopamine, a chemical in the brain that is important in movement and reduced in diseases such as Parkinson’s, might decrease in those with bradykinesia, and that treadmill exercise might improve dopamine levels.

Exercise, by the way, can help us fight off depression, remember more, make us smarter and flat out feel better, researchers said.

The Society for Neuroscience reported that “Lifestyle changes to diet and exercise will be important to aging populations as non-drug, easy-to-follow interventions with few side effects, make ideal potential therapies.”

Want proof? Back to those rats.

Long-term exercise in aging rats improves memory function, as well as increases the number of blood vessels in the white matter of their brains — the tracts that carry information between different areas of the brain. Increased blood flow may explain why exercise can help preserve memory.

Even what we eat affects what we can do.

Again, just ask the rats.

A low-calorie diet starting in middle-age onward protected rats against the effects of aging on movement, studies found. The results suggest that dietary interventions can help preserve movement function in a manner similar to exercise.

“We all know that keeping fit is critically important to a healthy lifestyle, from combating the effects of aging to boosting our mood,” said Teresa Liu-Ambrose of the University of British Columbia, who is an expert on exercise and its role in healthy aging. “Today’s results begin to show us not only how different types of exercise interventions can improve our lives, but how other types of lifestyle behaviors, from diet to meditative practice, can help us achieve wellness in our body and our brain as we age.”

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