My elderly aunt, I’m afraid, is not doing well. She lost her husband almost a year ago and has been declining ever since, determined, however, to remain in her home alone.
Her kids say she shouldn’t be living on her own. She’s forgetting things, she shouldn’t be driving and has no friends for support. But when I’ve called her to say hello, she sounds absolutely fine and cheery.
I’m sure you know someone like this who may be suffering.
Depression affects one in 10 American adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Whether it’s sadness, loss or anger that interferes with your everyday life, if these feelings continue, you need to ask for help.
The danger for many seniors is they don’t raise the issue with their doctor, they think it’s a normal part of aging that they just have to live with. But they’re likely the ones who have experienced the most loss, when it comes to family and friends who have passed away.
There is certainly a place for medication and life-saving treatments, but I do take issue with doctors who are so quick to take out their Rx pad! Why are nearly a third of American seniors taking five different prescription medications on a regular basis?
When it comes to low mood and depression, a new scientific discovery could obliterate the illness without the use of pills. No special tricks or deprivation, the therapeutic solution is exercise.
The brain on exercise
Decades after researchers first speculated on the effects of physical activity on the brain, neuroscientists at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm have found a new reason to exercise. It not only feels good, it can protect the brain from depression.
Wait a minute! Doesn’t everyone know that exercise can make you happy? We first heard about endorphins, those feel-good chemicals that produce a “runner’s high” or rush of euphoria. Then scientists identified the pleasure-inducing molecules that are released during hard workouts.
But this discovery is something different. Exercise – rather it’s a quick walk, taking a flight of stairs instead of an elevator, or a water aerobics class at a local pool – helps rid the body of a dangerous attacker that’s brought on by stress. The enemy here is an amino acid called “kynurenine” that’s associated with mental illness.
When our muscles get kicked into gear on a regular basis, they produce an enzyme that works to detox the body of this harmful substance.
Just like the liver and kidneys work to filter and flush out waste (and whatever stuff the body can’t use), we’ve discovered that our muscles have a similar function. They don’t just enable us to lift things or walk and stay mobile, muscles that are well-trained by regular use produce increased levels of this special enzyme to keep us mentally healthy and happy.
New evidence on why you need to get active
The Swedish scientists developed genetically modified mice with high levels of the enzyme in their muscles. They exposed those mice, along with normal mice, to a highly stressful environment of noises and flashing lights.
After five weeks, the normal mice showed depressed behavior, including lethargy and indifference to food, but the genetically modified mice did not.
The researchers chalk up the results to the above-normal levels of the enzyme that, under stress, converts kynurenine into kynurenic acid which cannot cross the blood-brain barrier. The acid can’t get to the brain to do the damage.
The takeaway for scientists (and us regular folks, too) is instead of targeting the brain directly with drugs to alter mood-control, we can treat our muscle function. When you have active, toned muscle, you can protect the brain from injury. Exercise, to make our muscles active, becomes a potent brain protector.
Training with weights or your own body weight, like in yoga practice, can help, but researchers recommend cardiovascular exercise where you get your heart rate up, as the best way to reap those brain-protecting results.
Now you don’t have to start running or sign up for a marathon, but find movement that you enjoy – and do it on a regular basis. If it’s a brisk walk with your arms pumping that will do the job just as well as. The main thing is you want to be committed and make that exercise part of your lifestyle.
The Swedish study isn’t the be-all and end-all about why exercise is good for your health. And this same muscle protein hasn’t been studied in people – yet.
Here’s what you can do right now
But committing to 30 minutes of feel-good movement three or more days a week may prove a key way to prevent and combat depression.
I’m all for options that don’t involve drugs that can be addictive or have dangerous side effects, especially in the long-term.
So many people battle frequent sadness or more serious depression that it’s no wonder the pharmaceutical industry has turned mood disorders into a cash cow. When I’m flipping through magazines or TV channels, there’s advertising for yet another new drug on the market to make us happy. Just speak to your doctor and mind the fine print warning of side effects like weight gain, digestive upset and risks to your heart.
I don’t want to reach for a pill as a first line of defense for illness. (That said, I have Advil in my desk drawer!)
I’ll be the first to acknowledge there’s a place for medications. But this study points to the very real possibility of exercise as the answer to good mental health.
Karen Hawthorne is managing editor at Health eTalk and BelMarraHealth.com. Karen has worked for the National Post, Postmedia News, CBC Radio Vancouver, the Edmonton Journal, the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and the Cobourg Daily Star, reporting on health news and lifestyle trends for over 15 years.