Conundrums pose puzzling and sometimes mysterious quandaries. Mature adults in the U.S. present one with very serious consequences.
The research on the benefits of active lifestyle habits is conclusive. People who maintain regular physical activity habits sustain their cognitive and physical health far longer into later life decades. Former Director of the Center for Disease Control (CDC), Tom Frieden, has stated “We know that … being active is the closest thing we have to a wonder drug.” Research reports come out every week touting the benefits of walking and other forms of exercise.
The news on brain health is particularly compelling. The National Institute of Health (NIH) reports that over 40% of adults over 65 experience some form of memory impairment. Neuroscience research has discovered that, contrary to long held beliefs, one part of the human brain is capable of neurogenesis – the growth of new neurons. That brain region, the hippocampus, acts as a central switching station for memory. People with active lifestyle habits can generate new neurons that play a central role in memory function.
However, the CDC also reports that over 60% of U.S. adults do not meet recommended standards for physical activity and that 25% of U.S. adults live sedentary lives with no regular exercise activity. According to data that we collected in a survey of 1600 residents of Silicon Valley, most of our sample knows that fitness is important to adult health, yet tens of millions of Americans do not integrate physical activity habits into their schedule. This is The Senior Conundrum. Most adults know about the benefits of regular activity but do not capture those benefits despite the risks to their cognitive health. Researchers at The University of California / San Francisco have concluded that half of all Alzheimer’s cases may be preventable with healthy lifestyle habits.
What gives? Ichiro Kawachi, Professor of Social Epidemiology and Chair of the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health was asked to reflect about the poor track record associated with so many public health initiatives. He replied “many public health theories assume that humans are rational, and we’re not. Our thought processes are automatic. And our behaviors are ruled by emotions, including the emotional states that advertisements create.” This observation by one of the world’s leading experts presents obvious problems.
The Lancet, a highly regarded British medical journal, concluded that 40% of U.S. deaths from Covid-19 could have been prevented. With Covid deaths topping the one million mark that represents an estimated 400,000 Americans who died unnecessarily. That figure certainly seems to represent a non-rational dynamic at work.
Readers of this article have a concrete opportunity to get more rational and capture the benefits to their cognitive and physical health by developing regular exercise habits. Start small and build a record of success before getting more ambitious. Lose the plan for entering a marathon unless you maintain a vigorous running habit already. Find a walking partner or fire up some interesting podcasts while you walk. It is your brain we’re talking about here. Treat it well.
Richard Houston holds a Doctorate in Education and was licensed by the Massachusetts Board of Psychology. He is a graduate of Brown University. He has conducted research on the psychological dimensions of healthy lifestyle behaviors and has had long term consulting relationships with several continuing care retirement communities. You can visit his website at Resilience-Advocate.com.
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