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How Exercise can help Dementia

There are many obvious benefits associated with a healthy lifestyle and regular exercise that apply to everyone. There is also now an increasing body of evidence that suggests that exercise can be particularly effective in combatting dementia.

First of all, a healthy lifestyle is thought to help lower susceptibility to degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. A 35-year study begun by Cardiff University in 1979 has traced the impact of five lifestyle factors on various diseases developing in old age: those factors were regular exercise, not smoking, low bodyweight, healthy diet and low alcohol intake. Findings published in 2013 indicated that people who observed four of those five behaviours saw a 60% reduction in dementia and cognitive decline and furthermore that exercise was the most important single factor. In addition, population studies have estimated that physical inactivity is a major factor in around 20% of cases of Alzheimer’s in the UK.

If people were to follow healthier lifestyles in general, we could see a significant reduction in the numbers of dementia cases – and in the associated healthcare costs – and regular exercise seems key to this. But what do we mean by ‘regular exercise’? The general advice for an adult is a minimum of 150 minutes a week (i.e. 30 minutes, five days out of seven). To receive some benefit, this need only be moderate exercise – cycling to work, or walking briskly – but obviously the more you can do and at a greater intensity, the better.

What about those already suffering from dementia? There is certainly some evidence that exercise can help slow cognitive decline, although the data here is less conclusive. However, it is definitely the case that encouraging physical activity can bring a host of other benefits. Firstly and most obviously, increased activity will lead to better physical health, reducing the risk of other problems arising and increasing the ability to perform day-to-day tasks effectively without assistance, particularly through improving balance. Secondly, regular exercise can also help dementia-sufferers who are struggling with poor sleep patterns or even restlessness and wandering during the day. Lastly, there are significant benefits to mental health arising from exercise that either gets an otherwise housebound person outdoors or involves them joining in a group activity or interacting with others. Depression and loneliness are common problems amongst the elderly in general, and in particular those suffering from dementia.

When it comes to dementia-sufferers, it is important to consider the form of exercise carefully. For starters, any pre-existing health conditions should be identified and accounted for when drawing up an exercise plan, as should the level of exercise that the person has undertaken in the past. It is also important to remember that exercise is defined by whether the activity increases the heartrate, so often simpler tasks such as housework or gardening are suitable for the elderly. Walking to the shops or to church, tai chi or dancing classes are all good examples of activities that could be considered. If mobility is an issue, a routine of seated or stationary exercises can be drawn up, something that visiting carers, such as those from Greenwood Homecare, are trained to assist with.

In general as much activity as is achievable is recommended, but it is important to remember that, particularly for those in the later stages of dementia, crowded, unfamiliar or noisy spaces can be disorienting and even frightening and this should be taken into account when considering exercise options. There are, however, a great many benefits that can be derived from regular exercise at all ages and, when it comes to combatting dementia, the advice of most professionals is that what is good for the heart is good for the head as well.

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