Already, in the UK today, the scale of Dementia presents a worrying statistic – so much so that George McNamara, head of policy at Alzhiemer’s Society, has described the condition as the biggest health challenge that the UK faces (The Guardian. 2015). Presently there are approximately 850,000 people suffering with the condition (Alzheimer’s Society. 2015. Dementia 2014 Infographic), it being identified as the third leading cause of death in the UK (Alzheimer’s Research UK. 2014). Worryingly, though, a recent report commissioned by Alzheimer’s Research UK, the UK’s leading Alzheimer’s research charity, has warned of a significant worsening of these current statistics in the future. Carried out by the Office of Health Economics, the report projects that of those born in the UK this year one in three are anticipated to develop Dementia in their lifetimes; a forecast that the charity has described as a “looming national health crisis” (BBC News. 2015; Alzheimer’s Research UK. 2015. One in Three People Born in 2015 Will Develop Dementia, New Analysis Shows).
Why is such a trend expected, you might ask? The biggest risk factor for developing Dementia is age. The UK population is now living, and is expected to live, longer than those previous owing to a greater knowledge with regards to healthy wellbeing, diet, and fitness, as well as improvements in medicine. Therefore, as people live longer, the numbers with Dementia will rise.With this expected rise now more than ever Dementia demands our attention. As a result, Alzheimer’s Research UK has called for greater efforts to help develop treatments and preventions that will help curb the projected trend (BBC News. 2015).
So what can be done?
Dependent upon the particular type of Dementia, there do currently exist methods that have demonstrated effectiveness in alleviating symptoms of the condition; Medications such as antidepressants and antipsychotics, or Psychological treatments such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy are such examples. Use of acetylcholinesterase inhibitors have also offered signs of treatment. However, the effects of such methods have been found to be inconsistent among sufferers and have not provided a long-term cure. (NHS. 2015; Alzheimer’s Research UK. 2015. Treatments Available)
Interestingly though, exercise may have a role to play.
Benefitting both physical and mental health, regular exercise training and physical activity has been claimed to have a “significant impact on the wellbeing of people with Dementia” (Alzheimers Society. 2015. Exercise and Physical Activity). By offering improvements in physical fitness, balance, muscular and bone strength, mood, self-esteem, and cognitive abilities, conclusions from a number of studies postulate that exercise has the potential to slow down cognitive decline of those already suffering from Dementia, offering benefits for people in all stages of the condition, and also offer a protective benefit for the risk of developing Dementia (Kramer, Erickson, and Colcombe. 2006). Seated exercises, Tai Chi, music and dance, and indoor bowls have all been utilized in exercise programs for Dementia sufferers in the past. Even those suffering from the most extreme forms of Dementia, where mobility is severely compromised, can harvest the benefits of exercise by moving around a little more during day to day life, or even sitting unsupported for a couple of minutes each day (Alzheimers Society. 2015. Exercise and Physical Activity).
And there is credence to the claims. Pitkälä et al. (2013) conducted a study that focused on the mobility and physical functioning of home-dwelling Alzheimer’s disease patients. The researchers randomized participants into one of three groups, each representing a different condition – a tailored home-based exercise program twice a week, a group based exercise program twice a week held at a rehabilitation Centre, and a control group. Results indicated that exercise can be beneficial for the physical functioning of Dementia sufferers, with the control group suffering from significantly quicker deterioration than either of the other two groups. Rolland et al. (2007) reported similar results, finding that Alzheimer’s sufferers who exercised demonstrated greater improvements in mobility, walking speed, and participation in activities of daily living compared to those who did not exercise.
Larson et al. (2006), on the other hand, offer support for the notion that exercise can act as protection against the risk of developing Dementia. Using an observational research method 1,740 male and females above the age of 65 participated in the study, none of whom had yet suffered cognitive impairment in the form of Dementia. Participants were initially asked to report the number of times per week that they performed physical activity. Following a period of 6.2 years, 158 of the participants had developed Dementia – the incidence rate being significantly greater for those who performed less exercise (fewer than 3 times per week), compared to those who exercised more. Similarly, Andel et al. (2008) reported that participating in exercise or physical activity at midlife may reduce the odds of Dementia in older adulthood.
Treatments for Dementia are currently few and far between and, with current projections detailing a rise in numbers, the future look bleak. Although research in the area is still fairly primitive, recent findings offer encouragement for the implementation of exercise interventions as a strategy for delaying or preventing disease onset, or slowing down the cognitive and physical deterioration of those already suffering from Dementia. The nature of Dementia can, of course, provide difficulty when it comes to performing physical activity. However, with professional help an exercise program can be developed that considers age, physical and cognitive ability, and the type and stage of Dementia that ultimately has the potential to offer a better life to those suffering with the condition.
Alzheimer's Research UK. 2014. 'Dementia Is the Third Leading Cause of Death In The UK'. ONLINE: http://www.alzheimersresearchuk.org/Dementia-is-the-third-leading-cause-of-death-in-the-uk/. [Accessed: 18th September 2015].
Alzheimer's Research UK. 2015. 'One in Three People Born in 2015 Will Develop Dementia, New Analysis Shows’. ONLINE: http://www.alzheimersresearchuk.org/one-in-three-2015-develop-Dementia/. [Accessed: 18th September 2015].
Alzheimer's Research UK. 2015. 'Treatments Available’. ONLINE: http://www.alzheimersresearchuk.org/about-Dementia/helpful-information/treatments-available/. [Accessed: 17th September 2015].
Alzheimer’s Society. 2015. 'Dementia 2014 Infographic'. ONLINE: http://www.alzheimers.org.uk/infographic.[Accessed: 18th September 2015].
Alzheimer’s Society. 2015. 'Exercise and Physical Activity'. ONLINE: http://www.alzheimers.org.uk/site/scripts/documents_info.php?documentID=1764. [Accessed: 17th September 2015].
Andel, R., Crowe, M., Pedersen, N. L., Fratiglioni, L., Johansson, B., & Gatz, M. (2008). Physical exercise at midlife and risk of Dementia three decades later: a population-based study of Swedish twins. The Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences, 63(1), 62-66.
BBC News. 2015. 'One in Three People Born in The UK in 2015 Could Get Dementia'. ONLINE: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-34313127. [Accessed: 18th September 2015].
Kramer, A. F., Erickson, K. I., & Colcombe, S. J. 2006. Exercise, cognition, and the aging brain. Journal of Applied Physiology, 101(4), 1237-1242.
Larson, E. B., Wang, L., Bowen, J. D., McCormick, W. C., Teri, L., Crane, P., & Kukull, W. 2006. Exercise is associated with reduced risk for incident Dementia among persons 65 years of age and older. Annals of internal medicine, 144(2), 73-81.
NHS. 2015. 'How Is Dementia Treated? - Dementia Guide'. ONLINE: http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/Dementia-guide/pages/Dementia-treatment.aspx. [Accessed: 18th September 2015].
Pitkälä, K. H., Pöysti, M. M., Laakkonen, M. L., Tilvis, R. S., Savikko, N., Kautiainen, H., & Strandberg, T. E. 2013. Effects of the Finnish Alzheimer disease exercise trial (FINALEX): a randomized controlled trial. JAMA internal medicine, 173(10), 894-901.
Rolland, Y., Pillard, F., Klapouszczak, A., Reynish, E., Thomas, D., Andrieu, S., Rivière, D., & Vellas, B. 2007. Exercise Program for Nursing Home Residents with Alzheimer's Disease: A 1‐Year Randomized, Controlled Trial. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 55(2), 158-165.
The Guardian. 2015. 'One-Third of British People Born in 2015 'Will Develop Dementia''. ONLINE: http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/sep/21/one-third-of-people-born-in-2015-will-develop-Dementia. [Accessed: 17th September 2015].
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About Ben Walker
BSc Sport and Exercise Science (Loughborough University; First Class Honours). MSc Psychology (Sheffield Hallam University; Merit). Currently at Loughborough University studying MSc Sport and Exercise Psychology.