Tag Archives: elderly

Study on mice: Exercising later in life can keep your muscles young

Exercising can not only make you feel younger, but it can also actually keep you younger as well. A study on mice suggests that exercising, even later in life, can do wonders for your muscles. In addition to underscoring the importance of staying active, the study could also help us uncover some of the secrets of rejuvenation.

Even though some diseases are inherited, we can still improve our overall health through lifestyle choices such as diet and exercise. Still, whatever the reason, the genes related to some of these conditions must be expressed for them to develop. So how does this happen?

A new study has brought us closer to an answer by mapping the genetic changes involved in rejuvenating the muscle cells of elderly mice put on an exercise program.

Turning genes on and off

The analysis centers on DNA, the “blueprint” for our bodies. DNA consists of four bases, called cytosine, guanine, adenine, and thymine, and the process used to help manage these massive helixes: a methyl molecule composed of one carbon and three hydrogen atoms. These atoms attach themselves to one of the four bases (cytosine) to form what’s known as a CpG site.

When this occurs, the CpG becomes methylated and the site produces proteins to regulate something in the body — whatever that something may be. In contrast, the region becomes unmethylated when you lose that methyl group, turning that gene off. In this way, a process called DNA methylation can promote or inhibit the expression of specific genes — whether it’s stopping a tumor, preventing cancer, or activating genes responsible for causing wrinkles in old age. This process is constant, occurring billions of times a second in every cell throughout the body, and we’re just starting to understand it.

DNA methylation is one of the many mechanisms of epigenetics, where inborn or acquired changes in DNA don’t touch the actual sequence – meaning a person can potentially reverse things like fat deposits through diet or exercise. More and more studies are starting to suggest that this is an unharnessed and robust process, linked to longevity and the regulation of lifespan in most organisms on earth.

The current study attempts to further this theory using lifestyle interventions such as exercise to roll back genetic aging in skeletal muscle – measuring the animal’s ‘epigenetic clock’ for accuracy. This clock is measured via methylation levels in the blood to reflect exposures and disease risks independent of chronological age, providing an early-warning system and a true representation of a period of existence.

Kevin Murach, an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas, says, “DNA methylation changes in a lifespan tend to happen in a somewhat systematic fashion. To the point, you can look at someone’s DNA from a given tissue sample and with a fair degree of accuracy predict their chronological age.”

Using exercise to turn back the clock

The study design was relatively simple: mice nearing the end of their natural lifespan, at 22 months, were given access to a weighted exercise wheel to ensure they built muscle. They required no coercion to run on the wheel, with older mice running from six to eight kilometers a day, mostly in spurts, and younger mice running up to 10-12 kilometers.

Results from the elderly mice after two months of weighted wheel running suggested they were the epigenetic age of mice eight weeks younger, compared to sedentary mice of the same maturity.

The team also used the epigenetic clock to map a multitude of genes involved in the formation and function of muscles, including those affected by exercise. Blood work indicated that the genes usually over methylated (hypermethylated) in old age resumed normal methylation in the active aged mice, unlike those mapped in their sedentary counterparts.

For instance, the rbm10 gene is usually hypermethylated in old age, disrupting the production of proteins involved in motor neuron survival, muscle weight & function, and the growth of striated muscle. Here it was shown to undergo less methylation in older mice who exercised, improving its performance. Normal methylation levels also resumed across the Timm8a1 gene, keeping mitochondrial function and oxidant defense at workable levels – even where neighboring sites exhibited dysfunctional epigenetic alterations.

More work is needed to harness DNA methylation

Murach notes that when a lifespan is measured incrementally in months, as with this mouse strain, an extra eight weeks — roughly 10 percent of that lifespan — is a noteworthy gain, further commending the importance of exercise in later life.

He adds: that although the connection between methylation and aging is clear, methylation and muscle function are less clear. Despite these sturdy results, Murach will not categorically state that the reversal of methylation with exercise is causative for improved muscle health. “That’s not what the study was set up to do,” he explained. However, he intends to pursue future studies to determine if “changes in methylation result in altered muscle function.”

And, “If so, what are the consequences of this?” he continued. “Do changes on these very specific methylation sites have an actual phenotype that emerges from that? Is it what’s causing aging or is it just associated with it? Is it just something that happens in concert with a variety of other things that are happening during the aging process? So that’s what we don’t know.”

He summarizes that once the medical community has mapped the mechanics of dynamic DNA methylation in muscle, their work could provide modifiable epigenetic markers to improve muscle health in the elderly. 

Mobility scooters can help keep the elderly move around, but a policy review is in order

In recent years, urban mobility has been changing in several ways and the pandemic seems to be accelerating these already-existing trends. Mobility scooters can be an excellent aid for those who struggle to get around otherwise, but safety and regulations seem to have fallen behind. A duo of researchers is now calling for a review of these regulations.

Image credits: Ben Wicks.

Mobility scooters can be a very useful alternative for the elderly or disabled. They are simple, electricity-powered vehicles, suitable for short-distance travel at low speeds — excellently suited for buying groceries or going out, for instance.

“As the population ages, one of the challenges that older people living in urban environments face is remaining mobile,” note Michal Isaacson and Dov Barkay, the authors of a new study, both from the University of Haifa. “Due to physical changes that become more common with age, older adults’ mobility may be limited, restricting their autonomy. As a result, restoring older adults’ autonomy may require mobility solutions other than driving cars or using public transportation.”

Mobility scooters are becoming increasingly popular. According to 2014 data from the US Census Bureau (2014), 40% of people aged 65 and older have to contend with disabilities, with two-thirds having difficulty walking. Like much of the developed world, the US population is also expected to grow its elderly population: the number of Americans over 65 is expected to nearly double from 51 million in 2017 to 95 million in 2060. Projections also suggest that mobility disabilities will rise to reach around 24 million.

Unsurprisingly, mobility scooters have also become more and more common. In the US, sales have experienced a 7.3% yearly compound growth, and this isn’t even accounting for COVID-19, which may convince some to use such a scooter instead of public transportation, for instance. But the scooters have rarely been studied in the scientific literature.

To address this, Isaacson and Barkay carried a review of existing data, policy, and science on mobility scooters.

Nowadays, there’s a wide variety of mobility scooters for sale, but the scooters are usually split into two categories: class 2 mobility scooters (smaller and lighter-more compact, also allowed indoor, with speeds of up to 4 km/h — a light stroll), and class 3 mobility scooters (larger, speeds of up to 8 km/h, only allowed outside). Any further classification falls apart.

Image credits: Isaacson and Barkay.

No two countries seem to have similar regulations for mobility scooters, the researchers note (they analyzed the US, Canada, UK, Germany, and Australia).

None of the examined countries require a driving license, which is presumably a good thing, as many people perceive driving not merely as a mode of transportation but as a symbol of independence and wellbeing, especially after the cessation of driving vehicles. However, although they run at low speeds, collisions are not unheard of and can have dire consequences.

Driver training is also something that needs to be addressed, the researchers note. Furthermore, actually finding the routes to use them can prove challenging.

At present, most countries consider mobility scooter riders as pedestrians. As a result, users must take the sidewalk, which can be difficult. Pedestrians are small and nimble, while scooters are bulky and not flexible, which means that any obstacle (such as a garbage bin or a bench, for instance), can be difficult to navigate around. This can produce risks, also for the elderly or more vulnerable pedestrians who are not using scooters. Sidewalks should be a safe refuge for pedestrians, but that sanctuary might be threatened when mobility scooters come into the picture. Then, there’s the problem of parking.

Parking spots for scooters need to be very closeby to be accessible and ideally, also protect from the rain and theft. The allocated spots need to be therefore designed accordingly, which can also be a challenge, especially in crowded cities.

“With the rise in the number of mobility scooters driven on streets within cities, the transportation infrastructure needs to be modified to accommodate mobility scooters. Urban and transportation planners need to address creating accessible passageways and allocating secured parking spaces that do not interfere with pedestrian movement and safety within cities,” the study notes.

Ultimately, the two researchers conclude that scooters can be important in making cities more inclusive and safe for specific populations. However, a few things need to be ensured: paths clear of obstacles, proper training, and appropriate parking.

“At stake are the safety of pedestrians and mobility scooter drivers, aspects of inclusion and sustainability in cities, as well as the wellbeing and independence of older people,” the study concludes.

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Exercising helps preserve vision for the elderly

walk_exercising

Physical workouts, be it simple home fitness, represent a golden standard for living a healthy life. Researchers at Emory University recently proved another key benefit to exercising, one especially useful to the elderly, after they found that even taking a few short walks a day can vastly curb  macular degeneration – the leading cause for loss of vision.

Studies that focus on the therapeutic or beneficial effects of exercising are usually centered around neurodegenerative diseases or injuries, and less on vision. Dr. Machelle Pardue and colleagues wanted to see whether there was any significant improvements in vision through exercising. Age-related macular degeneration – the progressive loss of vision with old age – is caused by the loss of light-sensing nerve cells in the retina called photoreceptors. It’s a bit like loosing pixels on a huge resolution TV, only instead of blank spots, your display becomes more blurry.

With this in mind, the team conceived a study where an animal model (mice) was subjected to exercising before and after exposing the animals to bright light that causes retinal degeneration. The researchers trained mice to run on a treadmill for one hour per day, five days per week, for two weeks. After the toxic light altered the mice’s vision, another two weeks of the same program was studied. Remarkably, the exercised animals had nearly twice the number of photoreceptor cells than animals that spent the equivalent amount of time on a stationary treadmill, and their retinal cells were more responsive to light.

“This research may lead to tailored exercise regimens or combination therapies in treatments of retinal degenerative diseases,” Pardue says. “Possibly in the near future, ophthalmologists could be prescribing exercise as a low-cost intervention to delay vision loss.”

Just one hour a day of exercising can have dramatic positive effects on your vision, later in life

Previously, similar studies also showed that exercising can significantly improve vision, however these followed energy intensive workouts like long-distance running. The present study suggests that even light exercising, like walking an hour a day, may provide a dramatic improvement for your eyes’ health.

“One point to emphasize is that the exercise the animals engaged in is really comparable to a brisk walk,” Pardue says. “One previous study that examined the effects of exercise on vision in humans had examined a select group of long distance runners. Our results suggest it’s possible to attain these effects with more moderate exercise.”

What are the mechanisms that link exercising with prolonged vision, though? The researchers were able to identify a certain growth factor called BDNF, which was thought to be involved in the beneficial effects of exercise in other studies. Mice that ran on  the treadmill a full four weeks had higher levels of BDNF in their blood, brain and retina than the mice that hadn’t exercised. Also, when the researchers blocked BDNF receptors, exercising didn’t render any visible improvements for eyesight. Next, the researchers are looking to find whether  other exercise regimens are even more protective and whether exercise is beneficial in models of other retinal diseases such as glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy. 

The results were published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

How older people are adapting to new technology

The media is often fond of touting the trite image of baffled grandparents being guided around the mysteries of the Internet by their cute, knee-high grandchildren, who cruise the online world with the assurance of digital natives.

Indubitably there is a degree of truth to the stereotype, as there are to most such generalisations. There are even many people in their 50’s and 60’s (still in the world of work and emails) who use technology in the most rudimentary fashion.

The reality though, is that practically any new skill, activity or new technology can be understood and mastered by anyone. All it requires is patience and practice. Sometimes when people see a child prodigy playing a piano concerto or performing a song in front of a huge audience, they forget the hours and hours of practice and hardship required to achieve mastery of anything and instead view it as some kind of preternatural ability.

They’re wrong to do so and the field of technology is no exception.

It Takes Attitude

That’s not to say that young brains aren’t better at processing and learning new information than that of the elderly. But the biggest barrier for the silver-haired is that they often aren’t prepared to grimly stick at the task until they’ve made some headway. Unlike children, they have bills to pay, problems to resolve and a variety of established habits and interests that they love to spend their time on.

Furthermore, children tend to be fearless because they don’t understand risk in the same way. Before the advent of touch screens and the kind of more intuitively designed technology that we see today, many adults who weren’t regular users of computers were frightened of irreparably damaging an expensive PC by deleting a critical file (even if that was never very likely). Turning a desktop on was puzzling, the navigational controls were alien and typing was frequently a single key at a time affair.

Youngsters, by contrast, jump straight in at the deep end and splash around unabashed until they have a good grasp of how a device works.

By going back to the curiosity of youth, the elderly are just as capable of getting to grips with gadgetry.

Design – Achieving Simplicity is Hard (But Now We’ve Got There)!

Senior citizens are quite aware that the world has changed quite radically during the past couple of decades and know that technology and the online environment can offer them a host of benefits.

The difference between now and even five or six years ago is that companies have created devices that are simpler to use, with cleaner interfaces. Such progress is reflected in the creation of tablet computers and smart phones, as well as the simplicity of digitally recording a TV program or the ease and comfort of using a stairlift.

Concurrent to “normal” platforms becoming more user-friendly, businesses have also cottoned on to the fact that there’s a market for products specifically designed for the elderly. These range from gadgets that have been slightly modified with older people in mind, to those that are solely designed to address the issues faced by those in the autumn of their days.

Cost – Not Like It Used To Be

Price used to be a barrier for anyone who wanted to purchase a new gizmo and remains a hurdle for high-performance brand items. However, it used to be especially difficult for retirees and pensioners.

But in general terms, the cost of electronics has come down dramatically since they first began to penetrate mass markets, and continues to be driven lower by competition and innovation. As a result, the elderly are much more able to engage with new innovations.

In short, older people can and are getting to grips with new technologies, whether they’re for surfing the net or helping them out round the home. Anyone who tells you otherwise is living in the past.