Fla. ó Everyone knows walking is good exercise, but it has
another benefit: a daily 20-minute walk can also cut the risk
of dementia by 40 percent, studies show.
those findings a step further, neurologists at Jacksonville,
Fla.ís Mayo Clinic are studying whether getting patients
immobilized by disease to walk can also help stave off mental
Van Gerpen, a neurologist who specializes in gait, is
recruiting Parkinsonís patients for a study to help them
stay on their feet and retain brain health.
is a window to the brain," said Van Gerpen. Regular
walking not only helps preserve brain function in healthy
people, but also protects against further damage caused by
dementia, Alzheimerís and diseases like Parkinsonís, a
degenerative disease that causes tremors, motor impairment and
someoneís gait changes ó steps get shorter or pace slows
ó that frequently indicates the brain is damaged. Thus,
walking problems are common in those with dementia and
Parkinsonís, because these conditions cause brain cells to
not only slows that progression, but helps brain cells recover
by forming new connections, Van Gerpen said.
Gerpen invented a laser device several years ago that helps
Parkinsonís patients walk better.
device attaches to walkers or canes and shoots a red laser
beam in front of the person walking. Visual cues can help
Parkinsonís patients walk without freezing. When patients
focus on stepping over the line, they access the visual part
of the brain, which bypasses the motor output area that isnít
working, Van Gerpen said.
device was a game-changer for Wayne Puckett of Clermont,
Calif. Four years ago, the 48-year-old started having tremors,
followed by difficulty walking and memory problems.
said gait freezing was the biggest issue. "I would just
come to a halt, especially at doorways," he said. The
former postal worker used to be able to memorize two zip codes
worth of street addresses, but that ability was gone.
2010, he went to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, where Dr.
Van Gerpen diagnosed him with a form of Parkinsonís and gave
him a Mobilaser that attaches to his walker.
first time Puckett used the Mobilaser, which is now
distributed worldwide and costs $400, he couldnít believe
the difference. "I was almost walking like normal. I was
in sheer amazement. It still amazes me."
helped in other ways, too.
I wasnít able to move as much, I noticed my brain was much
worse," Puckett said. "With the laser I can move,
get around, and am definitely able to concentrate
2012 study, Van Gerpenís team studied a small group of
Parkinsonís patients who had difficulty walking. By using
the laser, they cut in half both the time it took them to walk
a course, and the number of times they came to a halt, said
Van Gerpen. His new study aims to prove that the laser helps
patients walk every day, over months and years.
these patients walking is extremely helpful because it helps
the brainís blood flow and reduces mental and muscle
decline," said Dr. Nizam Razack, a neurosurgeon at
Florida Hospital Celebration Health who performs brain surgery
on Parkinsonís patients to help improve their motor
beyond helping those with Parkinsonís, a daily walk has
broader implications for Americans who are developing dementia
at an epidemic rate, said Van Gerpen.
is on the rise not just because Americans are living longer,
but because they have so much vascular disease. "Dementia
is related to obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes,"
he said. All these conditions impair blood flow to the brain.
blood flow in a large vessel to the brain gets blocked, a
person has a stroke," said Van Gerpen. "When small
vessels get blocked, brain tissue also dies. You just donít
notice it at that moment."
reduces the risk of small vessel damage. That will delay the
onset of dementia and help protect what function is left.
device has also helped Kenneth Sikora of The Villages, put one
foot in front of the other again.
age 66, has lived with Parkinsonís for more than 20 years.
He had been using a walker to get around "but not getting
very far," said his wife, Kathryn Sikora, who speaks for
her husband because he has difficulty talking.
heís up and moving hours a day now as compared to not at
all," his wife said.
estimates heís walking at least three times as much, at
double or triple the speed than before he had the laser. He
and his wife now go to the theme parks and places like
Downtown Disney, which was impossible before.
canít believe how something so simple can make such an in
impact," he said. "Anything that gets you up and out
and doing is worth it."
surgeon at Florida Hospital Celebration Health is using a
robotic device to treat patients with Parkinsonís and help
them stay on their feet. Robotic surgeon Nizam Razack is using
deep brain stimulation to help alleviate the tremors and
rigidity that accompany Parkinsonís, and make simple acts of
daily living difficult.
Mazor Robot, a smart device about as big as a soda can, Razack
places electrodes inside patientsí brains to stimulate
specific areas. The electrodes, which stay in the brain
permanently, have been shown to improve shaking and rigidity
in many patients.
a neurosurgeon, has performed the procedure without robotic
assistance more than 1,000 times, he said, and with the robot
robot is another way of doing the procedure, and can aid
precision by helping surgeons place electrodes within one
millimeter of the target, he said.
benefit for Parkinsonís patients: Many who couldnít walk
or hold a cup before now can.
GROW YOUR BRAIN
at the University of Pittsburgh found that walkers increased
the size of their hippocampus, the region of the brain that
controls new memories, by 2 percent after one year of walking
40 minutes three times a week.
researchers divided 120 older adults, average age 66, who did
not have dementia, into two groups: a stretching group and a
walking group. The group that walked increased their
hippocampus, while the stretching group showed no improvement,
according to the 2010 study published in the Proceedings of
the National Academy of Sciences.
that area of the brain decreases about 1 to 2 percent a year
in adults, said Dr. Jay Van Gerpen, increasing their risk for