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Another Reason Why Exercise is Useful for People With Alzheimer's

People living with Alzheimer's disease may be able to better perform everyday tasks, and decrease their risk for falling, if they engage in a regular exercise program according to a new study conducted by a group of Finnish researchers.

Much is made of the mental declines experienced by Alzheimer's sufferers. However, less attention is paid to the equally-impactful physical deterioration that goes along with the disease.

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"The neurodegenerative process of Alzheimer's disease also causes functional loss," says Mark Clarfield, M.D., a gerontologist at Soroka Hospital, in a commentary accompanying the Finns' study. According to Clarfield, this physical decline typically leads to, "disability, decreased mobility, falls and loss of basic bodily functions."

Previous research has solidified the link between consistent exercise and better brain health.

However, this most recent investigation is one of the first to lend credence to the idea that exercise could also help individuals with Alzheimer's disease remain physically active for longer.

To conduct the study, researchers split a set of 210 Alzheimer's sufferers (in the moderate to severe stages of the disease), who were being cared for at home, into three different groups.

The first group received the traditional form of community care offered to aging Finns—no special exercise programs, just normal dementia care. The second group engaged in twice-weekly group sweat sessions at a local adult day care center for people with Alzheimer's. The final group had a physical therapist come to their home two times a week to administer an individualized workout program.

Each group followed their particular program for one year.

While every study participant experienced some level of physical and mental decline during the year, the men and women in the home-based exercise program deteriorated at a significantly slower rate than those in the other two groups. They also experienced 50 percent fewer falls, and were far less likely to be admitted to the hospital.

The group exercisers fared better than those who didn't participate in a formal workout program, but slightly worse than the people who received individualized attention form the physical therapist. Study authors note that this was probably due to the fact that having a trainer come to a person's house (as opposed to them having to travel to the adult day center) made it more likely that they would participate in each workout session and not come up with an excuse to skip.

There also appeared to be an additional monetary bonus to adopting a regular workout regimen, even if that meant hiring a physical therapist to visit an elder in the home.

The yearly cost of taking care of a person with Alzheimer's was greatly diminished if they were involved in the individualized exercise program ($25,112 for those with specially-tailored programs versus $34,121 for those who did not exercise regularly). (Learn more about the financial costs of caregiving.)

Study authors note that their investigation didn't discover a definite cause and effect relationship between exercise and functional decline, but it did uncover a legitimate connection between the two variables.

As Clarfield notes, "This important study offers further support to the ‘use it or lose it' positivist school frequently espoused by geriatricians. Happily, the good news may pertain even to those who are already well into the process of decline."

Exercise tips for people with dementia

The National Institute on Aging (NIA) offers a few tips for incorporating exercise into the daily routine of a person with Alzheimer's, or other type of dementia:

  • Talk to their doctor: Your loved one's physician should always be notified of major changes in their routine. He or she may also have some suggestions for physical activities that may be good for your loved one to do.
  • Find something they enjoy doing: Regardless of whether or not a person has Alzheimer's, they are far more likely to stick to a workout plan if they're doing something they find enjoyable.
  • Start slow and simple: Be sure to introduce the idea of exercise slowly to your loved one and avoid overly-complex activities. People with Alzheimer's are prone to becoming anxious and fearful if they are exposed to an unfamiliar situation. This anxiety may cause your loved one to act out, or refuse to participate at all. Kick things off with a casual stroll or a simple game of catch. (Here are a few additional tips for how to control Alzheimer's disease behavior issues.)
  • Avoid perfectionism: If you progress to more complicated activities—such as tennis—keep in mind that, depending on the day, your loved one's disease may cause them to forget the rules, or even how to do the activity all together. It's not about perfection; it's about engagement.
  • Watch out for warning signs: Keep an eye out and make sure your loved one isn't over-exerting themselves. A cognitively-impaired individual may not realize that they're doing damage to their body.
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