Exercise is The Key to Improving Motor Skills in People with Dementia
Dementia isn’t just a disease that affects the mind. As it slowly steals away cherished memories, dementia can also cause an increasing loss of basic physical skills, such as getting up from a chair to stretch or even going for a walk.
But there is hope from a 2013 study conducted by the University of Arizona in Tucson.(1)
This study found that in dementia patients, increasing the intensity of the exercises used in a physical therapy program improved balance, leg strength and the ability to change positions. These physical improvements can help reduce falls, preserve independence and improve the overall quality of life for the patient with dementia, as well as their families and caregivers.
Other studies have shown that patients with dementia don’t do well in rehabilitation programs. But this could possibly be due to the fact that the rehabilitation program itself did not take into account certain limitations dementia patients have such as memory loss, difficulty speaking, difficulty understanding speech or simply a lack of motivation.
Based on the results of the University of Arizona study, a rehabilitation program for dementia patients must be specific to their needs and include the appropriate exercise intensity and for a long enough period of time.
This is crucial to remember if most elderly patients are going to be helped. In the United States, up to eighty percent of elderly patients that are part of a physical therapy program have some type of mental impairment, including dementia.
These factors are further reinforced by a 2011 study conducted in Germany. Elderly geriatric patients were divided into two groups of 74 patients each. The first group received a specially designed physical therapy program that took into account the challenges of people with dementia which included additional intensive exercises. The second group received the usual physical therapy program that the hospital provided.
The results showed that compared to patients receiving typical physical therapy, those in the specially designed program with increased exercise intensity had significant improvements in their physical abilities and on follow-up. What’s remarkable is that these improvements lasted nine months, even without continued training!
The takeaway message is this: People with dementia can benefit greatly from an intensive physical therapy program focused on maintaining strength, balance and the ability to walk. This will go far to help the dementia patient with overall health, well-being and independence.
The ARPF has been working with this group of researchers and funded a pilot study called Promoting Virtual Balance Exercise to Prevent Falls and Improve Cognition in Older Adults, which is in its final stages. The results are expected in the Fall of 2014. For more details about our Alzheimer’s prevention research studies, click here.
Dharma Singh Khalsa, M.D.
President and Medical Director
Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation