Dementia patients frequently need help completing everyday tasks and cannot live independently once their disease progresses beyond a certain point. They are at risk for serious injury due to cognitive decline, which can cause memory loss, confusion, and a loss of verbal control. The causes of dementia are various, but it seems there are ways to help dementia patients gain some control of their health back.
This does not mean that exercise cures dementia. In fact, patients still experienced decline; but the exercise program slowed the rate of that decline.
There seems to be hope in movement. A study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that a four month long intensive exercise program slowed decline in subjects with non-Alzheimer’s dementia in relation to their ability to perform basic daily functions and to balance. This does not mean that exercise cures dementia. In fact, patients still experienced decline; but the exercise program slowed the rate of that decline.
Exercise is often cited as a prevent-all for everything from cancer to heart disease to general effects of aging, but we now know that it can actively slow the decline that so haunts those who experience dementia. In adults without dementia, we have long known that exercise improves many physical functions, and we are often warned to stay active as we age due to the health benefits. Dementia patients may find it difficult to abide by an exercise program on their own, but can be helped to complete one and retain more memories and skills for a longer period of time than they would otherwise. Maintaining balance means fewer falls, which frequently cause injury and death among patients over 65, and which particularly affect dementia patients, whose sense of balance can be faulty.
The study found that the exercise required to slow dementia must be of high intensity. It must engage the individual almost to the maximum of his or her ability, and it must also address a specific task related to an Activity of Daily Living (ADL) or parts of that task. This is particularly true in the cases of Alzheimer’s patients, who need reinforcement of skills due to the fact that they may have trouble transferring a skill into a different or new context.
If you are caring for someone with dementia, contact their primary care doctor and see if an exercise program plan can be made. It might be wise to look into having professionals, such as a physical therapist, present, especially for those whose mobility has declined. This will ensure your loved one will sustain no injuries during exercise.
Other ways to slow dementia’s progress
Exercise is a great tool, but it doesn’t have to work alone.
A French study in the Bordeaux area found that moderate consumption of alcohol (three to four standard glasses of wine per day) is not a risk factor for developing dementia and may, in fact, prevent it. The study showed that adults who drank wine moderately were less likely to experience dementia, although the exact medical reasons why this might be remained unknown. While the researchers say that recommending wine for the prevention of dementia may be premature at this time, people over 65 need not worry about drinking wine moderately as it does no harm to their health and may be beneficial. (It should be noted that alcoholism is a possible cause of dementia, however, so the key here is moderate consumption of the beverage.)
Many other illnesses are associated with dementia and its development, including cardivascular disease, stroke, diabetes, and other well-known diseases. Environmental factors come into play too, says researcher Nicola T. Lautenschlager, writing in the Brazilian scholarly journal Revista Brasileira de Psiquiatria. A lack of educational opportunities and repeated trauma to the head are such environmental factors.
Combating these kinds of factors involves familiar health recommendations: eating a healthful diet, exercise, frequent contact with a physician to check for risk factors and symptom development, and family history checks. However, with cognitive issues such as dementia, keeping your loved one’s mind occupied and constantly learning is a key component to keeping the brain strong.
Although it technically isn’t a muscle, think of the brain in muscular terms: if you don’t use your brain to remember, to solve puzzles, to make connections, to investigate language, you lose abilities over time.
Although it technically isn’t a muscle, think of the brain in muscular terms: if you don’t use your brain to remember, to solve puzzles, to make connections, to investigate language, you lose abilities over time. Many people choose to make this practice fun, completing crossword puzzles (as a famous character on the hit show Grey’s Anatomy does, almost obsessively, after finding she has the Alzheimer’s gene), Sudoku puzzles, crafting projects, reading complex books, or even learning new languages. You or a loved one can go back to school, literally or figuratively, in search of stimulating brain function and the development of new brain cells, since more knowledge and education appear to protect the brain from dementia.
Overall, although there is not yet a cure for dementia, there are ways to prevent and slow its development by making seemingly insignificant changes in lifestyle. These changes are worthwhile in order to preserve brain health and improve the years over 65, making them into ones filled with memory, health, and fun.
Alzheimer’s Organization. Stay Mentally Active. Available at http://www.alz.org/we_can_help_stay_mentally_active.asp. Retrieved 2/1/2016.
Lautenschlager, N. T. (2002). Is it possible to prevent dementia? Revista Brasileira de Psiquiatria 24(1). Available at http://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?pid=S1516 44462002000500006&script=sci_arttext&tlng=pt. Retrieved 02/01/2016.
Orgogozo, J.M., Dartiques, J.F., Lafont, S., Letenneur, L., Commenges, et al. (1997). Wine consumption and dementia in the elderly: a prospective community study in the Bordeaux area. Originally published in Revue neurologique Societe de neurologie de Paris; Apr;153(3):185-92. Available at PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9296132. Retrieved 02/01/2016.
Toots, A.K., Littbrand, H., Lindelof, N., Wiklund, R., Holmberg, H., et al. (2016). Effects of a High-Intensity Functional Exercise Program on Dependence in Activities of Dailing Living and Balance in Older Patients with Dementia. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society 64(1):55-64. Available at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jgs.13880/pdf. Retrieved 2/1/2016.