Professor Nicola Lautenschlager
It’s obviously one thing to conduct the initial research into finding more evidence to establish a clear link between physical activity and the benefits for cognitive health, but, in a sense, the bigger challenge for all of us as societies is how to best translate that knowledge back into our community, so that everybody living in a community, of no matter what age, can have access to programs or information which helps them to do the right physical activity, at the right time, and the right duration, so that they have the best possible outcome for their cognitive health when they are older. The challenge is that a society, as a whole, has to make a decision to invest funds into this area. We are basically talking about here dementia risk reduction activities, and to think about how programs could be made available to community members, which offer the right type of physical activity to help with cognitive health in the future. I think this is a particularly exciting time now, because we have finally accumulated enough evidence that really a first step is to give the knowledge, in obviously appropriate lay terms, to the community, so that the first step would be to increase their knowledge of dementia risk reduction. What we see in many countries now, especially the western countries including Australia, is increasing information via certain bodies, for example Alzheimer's Associations, making the case and providing the information why physical activity is linked to cognitive health. What we do not have yet, internationally, is specific physical activity guidelines with the aim of looking at cognitive health, going beyond the general physical activity guidelines. But there are promising movements now in some countries like the US, the United Kingdom and Canada, who actually are now trying to get all the main international researchers in this field together, to develop specific information, which then can be accessed by the communities in various countries.
Obviously, when we think about physical activities, it’s not just thinking about what programs we could provide, let’s say in certain suburbs or Councils, but it is also about liveability in our cities and suburbs. Because lots of physical activity can be done by just increasing the activity level while you do your everyday jobs, like walking to the shops instead of taking the car, using stairs instead of taking the lift. One interesting area of research is looking at the walkability of suburbs, literally. So how good is the setup, especially for older people, to be able to be more physically active? Is it safe? Are the shops near enough? Are the pathways wide enough? And that obviously translates into other areas such as riding a bike, bicycle tracks and so forth. So this really moves then into planning policy of architecture and design, while cities like the main cities in Australia grow.
I think one point I want to mention which shows you how relatively straightforward the challenge is, is that many of the benefits of physical activity for cognitive health are exactly the same benefits as there are for heart health and for stroke prevention. We know that the recommendations, how to protect your heart from heart attacks, have been around much longer than advice on how to maintain your cognitive health. For example, one easy approach is to give all the necessary information to health clinicians, healthcare providers like general practitioners, to give them a second argument or another argument when they talk to their patients about how to protect their heart health, to say, “And it also helps you to reduce your risk of dementia”. We do know, from surveys of older Australians, that the fear of developing dementia is right in the top range of their health concerns they have for their age group. So it should be a very powerful argument. So looking at programs which could investigate how a general practice could prescribe targeted physical activity, as part of regular health check-ups for older people, would be a very strong way to go.