Potential Benefits of Physical Activity for Dementia

While it may not be possible to reverse or cure dementia, exercise and physical activity can slow it down. Physical activity may also help prevent people from developing dementia in the first place.

How Can Exercise Help Reduce Dementia Risk?

Some risk factors for dementia are uncontrollable. For example, genetic mutations can cause conditions such as Alzheimer’s or Huntington’s disease, two well-known causes of dementia. It is impossible to change one’s genetic makeup to improve the risk of developing dementia.

However, other types of dementia link back to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and sleep apnea. After Alzheimer’s, the second-most common type of dementia is vascular dementia caused by damage to the brain’s blood vessels. Adopting lifestyle changes, such as a healthy diet and regular exercise, can minimize these risk factors.

Studies have shown that regular physical exercise is one of the best things a person can do to decrease the risk of developing dementia. This is true of healthy older adults as well as those still in middle age. Exercise alone can reduce the risk of dementia in general by 30% and Alzheimer’s, specifically by 45%. While exercise alone has shown to have the largest individual effect on preventing dementia, when combined with other lifestyle choices, such as a healthy diet, moderate alcohol intake, and tobacco avoidance, the risk of developing dementia can decrease by 60%.

How Can Exercise Help People Already Diagnosed With Dementia?

It is important to emphasize that exercise is not a guarantee against developing dementia, and it certainly isn’t a cure for it. However, physical activity may offer various advantages to people diagnosed with dementia.

The effectiveness of exercise at improving cardiovascular health has been well-established with scientific data for decades. This may benefit dementia patients by improving blood flow to the brain. It is also thought that physical activity may help nerve cells to survive longer and stimulate their growth.

In addition to possible cognitive benefits, physical activity may also help with managing other symptoms of dementia:

  • Improving depression by elevating mood
  • Decreasing restlessness by promoting a regular day-night routine
  • Reversing mobility problems and muscle weakness related to inactivity
  • Promoting social participation for better engagement with others
  • Reducing stress with repetitive activities that don’t involve thinking or planning

When Should Those Living With Dementia Begin an Exercise Routine?

Studies show that only 20% of people over the age of 65 engage in physical activity. The percentage is even lower for people with dementia. While it is never too late to start an exercise routine of some sort, evidence suggests that dementia patients can benefit most from adopting physical activity during the early stages and continuing it as long as possible. Beginning an exercise routine in the early stages of dementia improves the chances of maintaining it into the moderate and late stages.

What Kinds of Exercises Should Those Living With Dementia Do?

Due to the increased blood flow, physical activity for those living with dementia should include aerobic exercise, i.e., an activity that increases the heart rate, if possible. Going on walks and doing yoga are good examples of flexibility and balance exercises.

However, it is more important that an individual with dementia engages in physical activity regularly. Therefore, the type of exercise may be less significant than whether it is an activity that is enjoyable for the individual. Activities such as gardening or housework have shown to offer some benefit despite not involving formal exercise programs.

Because individual tastes in exercise differ, typically assisted living and memory care specific facilities provide various exercise opportunities for residents that cater to these preferences. At Caring Places Management, we offer an extensive Life Enrichment Program allowing residents to engage in various activities, including exercise.

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