Updated: May 5
There is accumulating evidence that Dementia has a long pre-clinical phase that may begin years, or even decades prior to a clinical diagnosis.(1) In addition, there is data indicating the pre-clinical signs of Dementia, in addition to declines in memory and other cognitive skills, also include motor skill difficulties.
It’s difficult to tease out normal age-related changes in coordination and balance from those motor skills that put people at increased risk for Dementia. Measures of pre-clinical impairments include changes in gait and walking speed, loss of muscle mass and strength, as well as reduced manual dexterity and balance.
Once Dementia becomes part of the picture, friends and family members become increasingly aware of the changes in their loved one's memory and organizational skills. They may also notice their loved one has difficulty dressing or walking without assistance. Like the worsening cognition we associate with Dementia, losses in stamina and coordination also reflect more widespread brain damage.
Research shows that physical exercise plays an important role in helping to protect, maintain, and improve the health and well-being of people in either the pre-clinical or the clinical stages of Dementia. As is true for everyone, physical exercises must be safe, interesting, as well as give a sense of accomplishment. However, before embarking on new or increased amounts of physical activity, it is important that you first get approval from your loved one’s doctor.
A physical therapist (PT) is often a good place to start. He or she can devise an exercise plan to improve stamina, flexibility, balance as well as exercises that can prevent falls. You can find information about local physical therapists on the American Physical Therapy webpage. Your loved one's doctor, nurse, or medical social worker are other good sources of information.
Exercise also includes activities such as walking, dancing, gardening, and housework. All are inexpensive, do not require specialized equipment, and come with the satisfaction of having done something useful. As an added benefit all of these, and similar activities are sources of social and cognitive stimulation.
Exercise also includes activities that improve small or fine-muscle motor skills. The ability to button a shirt, open a cereal box, or use eating utensils, helps people who have Dementia maintain their independence for as long as it is possible. An occupational therapist (OT) can suggest helpful exercises and adaptive equipment that can make it possible to live at home for as long as is possible. Go to The American Occupational Therapy Association webpage to learn more about occupational therapy and the many ways occupational therapy can help people who have Dementia.
Small muscle exercises include pastimes such as craft projects, scrapbooking, baking, working with clay, painting, and drawing. These simple and inexpensive small muscle activities encourage socialization and maintain or improve cognition. An added benefit and perhaps the most important one is making things to share with others creates mementos of a life together and affirms the whole person.
Reference: (1) Buchman AS and D Bennett. Loss of Motor Function in Pre-clinical Alzheimer's Disease. Access; September 25, 2016.
Contributor: Janet Yagoda Shagam, Ph.D., is a freelance medical and science writer and the author of “An Unintended Journey: A Caregiver's Guide to Dementia.”
The opinions expressed by contributing authors are not necessarily the opinions of the Dementia Society, Inc. We do not endorse or guarantee products, comments, suggestions, links, or other forms of the content contained within blog posts that have been provided to us with permission, or otherwise. Dementia Society does not provide medical advice. Please consult your doctor.