Exercise for persons diagnosed with dementia has hidden benefits for both the caregiver and the patient. But first you have to understand the subtle connections between exercise and dementia.
There is no disputing that physical exercise is essential for maintaining good blood flow to the brain. Blood flow is critical to encourage new brain cell growth and survival. This fact has lead researchers to study the role exercise plays in two critical areas.
- What role does exercise play in reducing the risk of developing dementia?
- What benefits does exercise offer to people who have dementia?
Let’s look first at reducing the risk of dementia.
Risks of Dementia
Although there is more research to be done several studies have found that physical activity in early, mid and late life is associated with a lower risk of cognitive decline and dementia.
The benefits of exercise are far reaching. People who exercise regularly are less likely to experience heart disease and stroke – two factors related to an increased risk of developing dementia. Exercise also reduces the risk of high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and obesity – three more risk factors for developing dementia.
Longitudinal studies that have followed people over an extended period have shown higher levels of physical activity are tied to less cognitive decline as the people aged; regular exercise produced a slower loss of brain tissue over time.
Exercise for those who already have dementia.
Preliminary data has shown that exercise could improve the ability of older people with dementia to carry out daily activities. The Alzheimer’s Society in the United Kingdom concluded:
“We have known for some time that exercise helps reduce your risk of developing dementia but there has been little evidence of the true benefits for people with the condition. This research brings together existing studies, which show how important it is to support people with dementia to remain fit and active. Even in the later stages of dementia people can benefit from different types of activities such as gardening or singing or even seated exercises, when they’re no longer able to stand.”
The National Institute of Aging agrees: physical activity can help people with Alzheimer’s disease. And it does not have to be done in large chunks of time. In fact, a caregiver can exercise along side a loved with dementia or Alzheimer’s in 10 minute increments. Benefits such as strengthening muscles and improving balance will still be made. Exercise can also help to promote a normal daytime routine leading to a better night’s sleep. There are also two additional outcomes. Both the caregiver and their loved one will get results; and the person with dementia will benefit from the social interaction.
Essential components of a well rounded exercise program
It is important in all stages of our lives to work hard to maintain our balance, flexibility, strength and endurance – even for those who already have been diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Aerobic exercise improves general physical health and increases blood flow to the brain.
Strength training exercises the muscles against an external force, resulting in increased muscle, tendon and ligament strength, improved bone density, muscle tone and support for one’s posture. Balance and flexibility training strengthens the spine and supporting muscles, resulting in improved coordination and balance – critical components of fall prevention.
Exercise will prevent muscle weakness, reduce mobility problems and other health problems created by inactivity. Sadly, fewer than 20% of people over 65 actually engage in an adequate level of physical activity. Persons with dementia exercise far less.
Quality of life can be improved if a person is able to stand on their own, walk safely from room to room or do simple activities. The more the person with dementia can safely do on their own, the better it is for their loved ones and caregivers.
Start early and follow best practices to maintain health
When people exercise regularly, they are more likely to continue to do so when their condition begins to deteriorate. Support and encouragement from family members and health care providers will help to ensure any exercise program is maintained.
Physical Activity Tips
Try to be active every day in as many ways as possible. Try to think of movement as an opportunity, not an inconvenience. Be open to ways where you can incorporate movement and activity into your normal daily routine. For instance, do simple stretches and marching on the spot during TV commercials. Go for a walk with a friend or family member; choose activities you enjoy – a little gardening or even light housework!
Understand the Connections between Exercise and Dementia – Don’t forget the big picture!
The ‘Brain Matters’ Program in Australia suggests five inter-related components to help keep you healthy:
- Look after your heart.
- Be physically active.
- Challenge your brain mentally.
- Follow a healthy diet.
- Keep in touch with your friends – stay socially active.
There is so much we can do as individuals to empower ourselves against failing health – both physically and mentally. Healthy Active Seniors need to keep moving, fuel their bodies and souls, and think long term about living safely in their homes.