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Dementia: Role of Exercise in Dementia

Updated on September 10, 2016

Dementia is characterized by symptoms that may include memory loss and difficulties with thinking, problem-solving or language. A person with dementia may also experience changes in their mood or behavior. These changes are often small to start with, but someone with severe dementia has great difficulty in daily life.

Dementia is caused when the brain is damaged by diseases, such as Alzheimer's disease or a series of strokes. Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of dementia but not all dementia is due to Alzheimer's.

Dementia may involve cognitive and psychological changes in the person.

Cognitive changes - Cognitive changes include memory loss, difficulty communicating or finding words, difficulty reasoning or problem-solving, difficulty handling complex tasks, difficulty with planning and organizing, difficulty with coordination and motor functions, and confusion and disorientation.

Psychological changes - Psychological changes include personality changes, depression, anxiety, inappropriate behavior, paranoia, agitation and hallucinations.

Dementia involves damage of nerve cells in the brain, which can occur in several areas of the brain. Dementia affects people differently, depending on the area of the brain affected.

Age as risk factors

The risk rises as we age, especially after age 65. However, dementia isn't a normal part of aging. And dementia can occur in younger people as a result of some concomitant medical condition.

Effects of exercise on dementia

Physically active life not only contributes to lessen the risk of dementia but also actively helps the disease. Rapidly growing evidence strongly suggests that exercise, specifically aerobic exercise, may attenuate cognitive impairment and reduce dementia risk. Besides a brain neuro-protective effect, physical exercise may also attenuate cognitive decline by mitigating cerebro-vascular risk, including the contribution of small vessel disease to dementia. Therefore, exercise should not be overlooked as an important therapeutic strategy.

Exercise in prevention of dementia in older persons -

It has been conclusively proven that regular physical exercise delays or prevents onset of dementia in older persons. Several studies have found that higher levels of physical exercise are associated with less cognitive decline in older people. Other studies have found that people who exercise regularly experience a slower loss of brain tissue as they age. Regular aerobic exercise, including walking, in sessions of at least 30 minutes five days a week has been found to be beneficial for cognitive health. All exercise is worth doing. Ideally, a well structured exercise plan should consist of aerobic, muscle strengthening and flexibility exercises, which should be performed regularly and consistently to experience beneficial effects.

Exercise in treatment of people with dementia -

Physically active lifestyle favorably affects the wellbeing of people with dementia by playing a significant role in all stages of the disease. Some people with dementia may have participated in regular exercise over the years and the idea will not be new to them, while others might have exercised very little. Younger people with dementia may be able to undertake a greater amount of physical activity. People, who have not taken part in any regular exercise for some time, or those with certain health issues, should consider seeking medical advice before embarking on an exercise plan. It is important to choose activities that are suitable for the person, which they find enjoyable.

  • Exercise in early and middle stages of dementia - There are many suitable exercise options that may be beneficial for people in the early or middle-stages of dementia. One may take the help of an expert in this regard. Walking, gardening and housework are also good forms of everyday physical activity. Yoga, Tai chi, qigong, dancing and swimming are also quite suitable if the person is able to participate in them.
  • Exercise in later stages of dementia - Physical activity can also be beneficial in the later stages of dementia, if it is possible. Staying mobile may reduce the need for constant supervision from a caregiver. Any schedule of physical activity has to be planned keeping in view the physical and mental condition of the patient and it should be allowed initially to be practiced under supervision till the person becomes adept at it. Later, it may be allowed to be done independently only after making sure that the person is able to do it. Such a schedule should include simple movements of different parts of the body that the individual can perform with ease. Later, compound and complex movements can gradually be introduced as one’s balance improves.

There are several theories why exercise might help brain health. Increased blood flow caused by physical activity might "beef up" the brain, increasing its volume and promoting the growth of additional neurons in the brain. Physical exercise might end up leading to increased density of the connections between the neurons and create alternative pathways for signals that might otherwise be blocked due to age-related brain shrinkage. Physical activity creates valuable opportunities to socialize with others, and can help improve and maintain a person’s independence. This is also emotionally and physically beneficial to caregivers. It also improves self-esteem and mood leading to general well-being of the person.

Conclusion –

Actually, physically inactive lifestyle is turning many into couch potatoes. It has been conclusively found that they have a higher risk of developing dementia in old age. The researchers have found that seniors, who get little to no exercise, have a 50 percent greater risk of dementia compared with those, who regularly take part in moderate or heavy amounts of physical activity. Moderate physical activity is good enough to reduce the risk of dementia; it need not be intensive. In fact, one is never too old to exercise and gain benefit from it. The patients with dementia derive most benefit from exercise, thus improving the course of their disease.

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