Walking and Memory Loss
A news item in the New York Times science section confirms that exercise can prevent memory loss. According to journalist Paula Span, new studies show that memory can be expanded “by nothing more than regular walking.” While sedentary adults over age 60 normally lose a small percentage of the brain’s capacity for memory in the course of one year, a new study shows that older adults who walked three times a week for a year not only didn’t lose any brain capacity, they gained it. See the article for more details.
You can also read our discussion of starting and continuing exercise below in Get Up and Go. And check out the exercise classes and walking clubs offered in our five senior centers!
Getting Around New York City: Transportation for Seniors
It’s vital to stay active as you age, and New York is a great place to keep moving. There are a million things to do and see, and with all the buses, subways, trains, and taxis available, you can get where you want to go without a car. This is one area where New Yorkers have good reason to brag: NYC’s transportation system is the largest in North America. With 13,000 miles of sidewalk, New York is also one of the best walking cities in the U.S.
It sounds great, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, the reality of getting around the city is less rosy than this. For older New Yorkers, or for those with disabilities, it isn’t always easy to use public transportation. And the sidewalks? They’re not so great either.
The subway. First, the good news. New York City is committed to making buses and subways accessible to seniors and people with disabilities. Metrocards are half price for seniors. The Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) website provides a list of accessible subway stations where there are working elevators and escalators, and special entry gates that let in wheelchairs, walkers, and service animals. .
Careful, though! It’s important to look closely at the detailed information for each subway station. For example, The Union Square subway station at 14th Street is an “accessible” station but it has access only to the L, N, Q and R trains, not to the 4, 5 and 6 trains. And just because a station has an elevator doesn’t mean it’s actually working. You can check the MTA website to see if elevators and escalators are working.
When seniors avoid the subways, it’s often because the stations have too many stairs. Peter, a member of Project FIND’s Hamilton Senior Center, walks with a cane. He can manage the few blocks to Hamilton, and can get to a bus stop and onto a bus. The subway stairs, however, are too difficult for him. And while the trains are comfortable, the stations are often too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter.
What about buses? Again, here’s the good news: there is wheelchair-accessible service on all of the MTA’s buses, and there’s a kneeling feature that lowers the front entrance of the vehicle to the ground for easy access by anyone who has difficulty using the front steps.
The main problem with the buses is that there are too few of them. The economic downturn is the cause. The estimated budget shortfall for the MTA in 2010 is $400 million. The result is that there are fewer buses on some routes and other routes have been canceled entirely.
Ann, an active 84-year old member of Project FIND, says that it takes two buses for her to get to art class with Duane. She has to allow at least an hour to go from one part of Manhattan to another because of the long wait at bus stops.
The city recognizes that reduced routes can be a real hardship. The Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) has launched a pilot program to provide alternative transportation for neighborhoods with reduced bus service. This is a livery van group-ride service using vehicles that can each accommodate 6 to 20 passengers.
Access-a-Ride. This is a New York City service that provides transportation for people with disabilities who cannot use buses and subways. It takes passengers from door to door, and it costs the same as the bus and the subway.
You must be certified to use this service. This means that you have to visit an assessment center in the borough where you live to see a healthcare professional. Even if you are only temporarily disabled by an accident or surgery, you can be considered for paratransit service. However, not everyone is approved to use this service. One member of Project FIND had to use a cane for six months after surgery. He went to an assessment center, but because he could walk short distances and climb a few stairs he did not qualify for Access-a-Ride. Here is more information about Access-a-Ride.
Taxis. For those who can afford it, taxis are a great way to get around the city. But how do you know if a taxi is legitimately licensed? How much can taxis charge you? To find out, check the Taxi and Limousine Commission’s information for passengers.
Walking. Many seniors walk for exercise. The Department for the Aging (DFTA) has organized walking clubs all over the city to encourage people to be active. Project FIND has walking clubs at most of its senior centers.
Walking is also a mode of transportation for many city-dwellers. Some of Project FIND’s members live just blocks away. Others walk to a subway station or bus stop. If you ask older New Yorkers about walking in the city, they will immediately talk about the obstacles to getting around on foot. There are cracked and uneven sidewalks, curbs that are a big step up, and, worst of all, ice and snow. Building managers in New York are responsible for clearing the sidewalks in front of their buildings or stores. Too often, Project FIND members report, they don’t do it. Slippery sidewalks can be a real deterrent to going outdoors.
These complaints are not news to city planners. The Age-Friendly New York CityInitiative” is a plan to make the city an easier, safer, and more satisfying place for older residents. It is full of specific goals such as developing taxi vouchers for senior and improving bus shelters, and it commits to making intersections and crosswalks safer.
New York City has made great improvements in safety: traffic fatalities have dropped by 35% in the last decade. However, pedestrians are ten times more likely than motor vehicle occupants to be victims of a traffic accident. And a recent report about pedestrian safety in New York City shows that while seniors represent 12% of New York’s population, they account for 39% of pedestrian deaths.
As a result of these findings, the Department of Transportation has embarked on a Safe Streets for Seniors program that aims to make rapid improvements in sidewalk and crosswalk safety. One simple action that has immediate benefits for pedestrians is to increase the number of seconds that the “Walk” sign is on before traffic gets the green light. In this way, pedestrians have more time to get across the street before cars start turning. New York has already adjusted the timing of hundreds of lights throughout the city. Many more changes are planned.
But what about right now? All of these projects are welcome news. However, today is the day that New Yorkers need to take the bus or the train. Tomorrow may bring improvements but this doesn’t help someone who can no longer get to an appointment because her bus route has been eliminated.
What you can do. Speak out about transportation problems that affect you: broken sidewalks, dangerous intersections, reduced bus service. Contact the Straphangers Campaign, a 30-year old organization that serves as a watchdog for public transit in New York City. Also check out Transportation Alternatives, a non-profit organization that has been working for over 35 years to reduce the amount of traffic in New York City and to promote walking, bicycling, and public transportation. Both organizations can give you information about how to take action and get help.
DFTA’s Travel Tips for Seniors: http://www.nyc.gov/html/dfta/html/tips/travel.shtml
MTA’s guide to accessible transportation: http://www.mta.info/accessibility
Get up and Go: Starting and Continuing Exercise
We all know that we should exercise regularly. Every time we turn on the TV or surf the internet or open a magazine experts want to tell us about the importance of exercise.
As with anything that’s good for us, knowing we should do it doesn’t mean we will do it..
Sometimes it’s hard to find the time or the energy to squeeze exercise into the day. You may be reluctant to spend money on an exercise class or a gym membership. Maybe you have some physical limitations, or are recovering from an illness. For older people these obstacles may seem particularly daunting. But they don’t need to be. In fact, once they find the right activity, one that suits their interests and fitness level, many seniors find that exercise can be fun!
First, though, let’s look again at why exercise is so important, and how it can affect aging.
The Fountain of Youth
People have sought for centuries to find a foolproof way to thwart the aging process. Legend has it that Ponce de Leon, the Spanish explorer, discovered a fountain of youth in Florida in the 16th century. Today there is a theme park in Florida celebrating Ponce de Leon, but no one who has drunk its waters has actually come back any younger.
Jane Brody, science writer for the New York Times, studied the recent research on aging and concluded that “regular exercise is the only well-established fountain of youth.” (March 2, 2010 column). It sounds too good to be true but it’s not.
What conditions do you associate with aging? Memory problems? Heart disease? Weakness and loss of balance? The surest way to prevent these ailments is exercise.
Memory problems: Research shows that exercise improves cognition and reduces normal memory loss. For example, a study by neurologist Scott Smallfound that exercise increases blood flow to parts of the brain that are affected by age-related memory decline.
Heart disease: Regularly participating in moderately vigorous physical activity can reduce your risk of fatal heart disease, experts at the Mayo Clinic tell us.
Loss of strength and balance: Certain types of exercise can significantly improve your strength and balance and help you avoid falling. (See our most recent Topic below, Safety First: Falls Prevention.)
There are many more benefits of exercise for maintaining and improving our well-being as we age. For example, diabetes, osteoporosis, and age-related illness are problems that can be prevented or ameliorated by regular exercise. But all we really need to know is this: “Physical inactivity is one of the strongest predictors of unsuccessful aging for older adults.”
You’re never too old to begin
You can start exercising at any age! The myth that older people should avoid strenuous activity was proven wrong decades ago. Whatever your age or state of fitness, you can reap the benefits of physical activity with even the most minimal start.
While studies show that even the oldest among us can start fitness programs without fear of harming themselves, it is crucial to check with your doctor before starting a new physical activity. It is equally important to start slowly. Rachel Eisenman, Project FIND’s strength training instructor and fitness expert, advises people to “abandon any expectations of picking up where you left off 30 years ago. This is a new initiative and deserves a clean slate.”
If you visit Project FIND’s Senior Centers, you will see older adults, ranging in age from 60 to 95, participating in a variety of exercise classes. Some are frail while others are vigorous. Some come in with a walker and do the exercises in a seated position. Others are fit enough to walk briskly for an hour. All seniors are welcome!
How do you get more active when you’re too tired or feel too busy? The most important way to work exercise into your life is to make it something you enjoy. If it feels like a chore, if it is inconvenient or burdensome, you won’t continue doing it.
Research shows that the surest way to enjoy exercise is to do it with other people. If you walk with a friend or take a class, it becomes a social event that also happens to be good for you! Just visit one of Project FIND’s salsa classes to see a lot of smiling.
With all the advice and information available everywhere you turn it can be overwhelming to know where to begin. There are three types of exercise that are important: aerobic exercise, strength training, and exercise for balance and flexibility. For example, walking, workouts at a gym, and yoga would fit the bill. But that’s a lot to take on at first. Here’s the best advice from the experts:
Start small. For some this means walking ten or even five minutes a day. For others this means taking one class a week.
Doing it more often is better than making it more challenging. When you start, aim for frequency rather than duration. Daily activity is best but even two or three times a week is great. Jane Brody advises readers to treat it like brushing your teeth: you do it daily without thinking about it. You don’t have to look for your brush or toothpaste or wonder if the faucet is working. To make it simple, keep your walking shoes and water bottle within easy reach. Post a class schedule on your refrigerator.
Exercise in street clothes. You don’t need to think of exercise as separate from the rest of your day. Walking is a great way to get and stay fit. Go up a flight of stairs instead of taking the elevator. Chop vegetables by hand instead of using a food processor. Even people using canes or walkers can walk short distances and work up strength.
Sticking with it
Here are some of the reasons why people don’t stick with exercising:
- It’s too hard.
- It’s boring.
- It doesn’t result in weight loss or muscle tone right away.
- It’s hard to fit into the day.
- It costs too much.
The solutions are surprisingly easy.
- Start slow and easy. Increase gradually.
- Try different things. Vary your walking route, or take different classes. Project FIND offers yoga, tai chi, qi gong, latin dance, martial arts, and strength training. Some of our centers also organize walking clubs.
- You usually feel change before you see it. Focus on how you feel. “The psychological benefits of exercise are immediate,” Rachel explains. “You’ll feel better after your very first workout.” You might sleep better, be less anxious, find you can walk farther or lift things more easily.
- Try doing it at the same time every day. You may find that it will then fit more easily into your schedule.
- Many places offer classes that are inexpensive or free. Project FIND has an array of offerings free of charge. If you don’t live near any of Project FIND’s Senior Centers, try senior centers in your neighborhood. Other sites that might offer classes are YMCA’s, community centers, churches and synagogues.
Remember: the best exercise is the one that you will do on a regular basis.
Healthy aging is not only a matter of luck. Colin Miller, head of the International Council on Active Aging, says: “A lot of the problems we used to think of as being related to aging, we now know aren't related to aging at all. They are related to disuse of the body.”
In other words, get up and go!
American Academy of Family Physicians: “Promoting and Prescribing Exercise for the Elderly.” http://www.aafp.org/afp/2002/0201/p419.html
Mayo Clinic: “Healthy Aging.”
Jane Brody in The New York Times: “Healthy Aging” (January 12, 2010); “Even More Reason to Get a Move on” (March 2, 2010); “To Keep Moving, Look Beyond the Physical” (March 8, 2010).
National Institute on Aging
Safety First: Preventing Falls
A few months ago, Maria tripped over a rug in her apartment. One morning, Stanley forgot to take his medication and became dizzy. Luis missed a step in his building’s dark hallway. Marsha lost her balance carrying groceries into her house. Beverly wasn’t eating enough and got disoriented. These are all true scenarios each having the same result. The individual fell.
Such accidents may seem random but they have a common denominator. They all happened to older adults. Some of these individuals suffered injuries and one needed surgery. Nationally, for older adults, falls are both the leading cause of injury deaths and the most common cause of nonfatal injuries.
Why are the elderly more likely to fall than younger people? There are many reasons.
Physical weakness makes it hard to manage stairs and heavy doors.
Lack of exercise leads to loss of muscle strength and balance.
Older adults tend to take more daily medications, some of which have side effects that impair balance. Forgetting to take medication may also cause problems.
The vision changes associated with aging often make it difficult to judge distances, or to see things in the way.
Even if one sees well, dim lighting in the home or building may also impair vision.
Physical obstacles such as clutter, electric cords, and rugs may lead to tripping.
Inadequate nutrition, often an issue as one ages and has trouble preparing meals, may cause dizziness and weakness.
The good news is that all of these problems can be avoided. Note that some of the solutions outlined below are straightforward. Others take more time but are well worth the effort.
Physical Obstacles: An easy way to make your home safer is to simply remove the rugs. Maria learned this the hard way. Another common cause of tripping is electric cords. These can be gathered in one organizer and tacked behind furniture. Any other floor clutter should be placed out of the way.
Lighting: Add more lighting to your rooms with additional lamps or stronger bulbs. If you live in an apartment building, make sure that the hallways and stairs are well lit. It’s usually the landlord’s responsibility to provide good lighting. Better lighting might have prevented Luis from missing a step in his hallway.
Vision: Annual eye exams are recommended for people over 60. A new glasses prescription can make a big difference. The American Optometric Association has plenty of advice and information for seniors.
Strength and Balance: Certain types of exercise can significantly improve your balance and strength and thus prevent falls. Tai chi, for example, is a gentle form of exercise that reduces the risk of falling among people who practice it regularly. Strength training makes it easier to climb stairs and open heavy doors, and is recommended for preventing falls.
Other forms of exercise also improve strength, balance, and confidence. At Project FIND you can take yoga, dance, qigong, tai chi, strength training, and martial arts classes.
Medications: Talk to your doctor if you think your dizziness or balance problems are related to your medications. Pharmacists are also good sources of information about prescriptions. If you have a habit of forgetting your medication you can choose from a variety of pillboxes that organize medication by day and time. You can even find pillboxes with alarms on them!
Nutrition: For many reasons, older adults often don’t eat or drink enough and may suffer from malnutrition or dehydration. Shopping and cooking may be physically challenging, or not worth the effort for someone who lives alone. Beverly, for example, lives alone and occasionally skips a meal because it’s too much trouble to prepare it. Some seniors on limited incomes can’t afford to buy food. Others suffer from loss of appetite caused by medication or depression. Lack of food and drink can cause dizziness which in turn may lead to falls and injury. One solution is to take advantage of the low-cost, healthy meals that senior centers provide to members. Project FIND’s Senior Centers offer meals every day of the week.
We hope you’ve found this information useful. Please also check the resources below for more information on this topic. As always, we welcome your comments and suggestions.
This fall prevention checklist for older adults has very detailed, practical advice:
Stop falls.org has useful information for individuals, families, educators and researchers. You can find specific exercises to improve balance, or links to the latest scientific research