Alzheimer's disease is a growing problem around the world, with its expected to increase considerably over the next several decades. In fact, as of 2015, one in three seniors dies with Alzheimer's disease or another type of dementia, and it's the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S.
Prevalence of Alzheimer's disease and other dementia is on the rise
An estimated 5.3 million Americans of all ages have Alzheimer's disease in 2015, and caring for people with Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia will cost the nation $226 billion in 2015; these costs are expected to skyrocket to $1.1 trillion by 2050. As Alzheimer's disease and dementia are now an extremely common healthcare concern among older adults, and the costs of caring for an individual with Alzheimer's disease or some other type of dementia reaching such astronomical figures, any method for slowing the progression of the disease or improving cognitive functioning is welcome.
Both physical and cognitive activities may improve cognitive functioning, research shows
While Alzheimer's disease cannot be prevented, cured or slowed despite advances in modern medicine and therapeutic techniques, there are some cognitive and even physical activities that have shown promise in research studies for improving cognitive functioning.
For instance, a 2013 Cochane review (an update to a 2008 review) found that exercise "may improve both cognitive functioning and the ability to perform activities of daily living in people with dementia." The study's lead author, Dorothy Forbes, PhD, associate professor, Faculty of Nursing, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada, says the results indicate that prescribing physical activity for individuals with dementia could offer benefits.
Additionally, other studies have demonstrated the positive effects of physical activity in midlife. Psychology Today reports on several such studies whose findings indicating that physical activity in midlife can reduce the risk of developing dementia later in life — and those who participate in regular physical activity as young adults benefit from a boost in brain power in midlife. Generally, physical exercise has brain-boosting benefits that can have positive effects for several decades.
Cognitive activities linked to memory and cognitive improvements
According to Everyday Health, the brain, like the muscles in the body, can atrophy with a lack of use. So much like physical exercise is beneficial for maintaining lean muscle mass, targeted brain-flexing activities can help you to preserve your brain's cognitive reserve, or "its ability to withstand neurological damage due to aging and other factors without showing visible signs of slowing or memory loss."
There have been several meta-analyses of prior research studies performed in attempt to gain a body of evidence supporting the idea that cognitive stimulation can improve the effects of Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia on cognitive functioning.
Results generally indicate that some positive effects are noted, such as improvements in cognition above the effects of medication, as found in this review, and improvements in scores on the mini-mental state examination (MMSE) and Alzheimer's disease Assessment Scale-Cognition (ADAS-Cog), as found in this analysis. However, it's worth noting that improvements in Assessment Scale-Cognition (ADAS-Cog) were not clinically significant, and the authors note that "difficulties with blinding of patients and use of adequate placebo controls make comparison with the results of dementia drug treatments problematic."
What cognitive activities can help improve cognitive functioning for people with Alzheimer's disease or dementia?
The best brain exercises and activities may vary from person to person, depending on the individual's current level of cognitive functioning, interests, and abilities. The Alzheimer's Association recommends several activities that can help seniors stay mentally active, including:
- Learning something new, such as how to play a musical instrument
- Committing to lifelong learning and remaining curious; enrolling in continuing education courses at a local college or university
- Attending lectures or plays
- Playing games or participating in memory exercises
- Reading, writing, or working on crosswords or other puzzles
- Knitting or needlework
- Learning a new language
- Taking up a new hobby
- Playing chess
- Playing computer games that require strategizing, memory, quick responses, and active participation
- Puzzles, including both traditional jigsaw puzzles and other types, such as brain teasers, Sudoku, and even math problems