Maureen Wendt

I read recently that 73% of older adults worry about their memory abilities. This was not a surprise to me, so I'm sharing the results of a recent study that was conducted for people with early stage memory loss.

Those diagnosed with early stage dementia can slow their physical, mental and psychological decline by taking part in therapeutic programs that combine counseling, support groups and qigong, researchers report. Some of the benefits of this approach are comparable to those achieved with anti-dementia medications. The findings of this study are quite important.

The lead author of the study said, "Most of the research on dementia and most of the dollars up until this point have gone into pharmacological interventions. But we have evidence now from studies like mine that show that other approaches can make a difference in the way people live and can possibly also impact their cognitive function."

In the study, people with early stage dementia participated in an intensive 40-week program. The intervention included biweekly sessions of cognitive behavioral therapy and support groups, along with three sessions per week of traditional Chinese martial arts exercises and meditation, called qigong (chee-gong).

A comparison group of people with early stage dementia did not participate in these programs for the first 20 weeks of the intervention.

Researchers are discovering that multi-disciplinary approaches — those that address people's physical, mental and psychological dimensions — show the most promise in treating people with dementia. "Not only can we help people have a higher quality of life, but these treatments support neuronal function and have the potential for neuronal regeneration. Earlier studies have shown that such programs can work as well as anti-dementia drugs," researchers said.

Qigong combines simple physical movements and meditation. It's a series of integrated exercises believed to positively affect the mind, body and spirit.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is a form of psychotherapy that seeks positive alternatives to the beliefs and behaviors that can undermine a person's health and happiness. Research has shown that cognitive behavioral therapy and support groups aid those who struggle with depression and other physical or mental health problems.

Participants in the program benefited in a variety of ways. After 20 weeks, those in the treatment group improved in several measures of physical function, including balance and lower leg strength, while those in the comparison group did not. There were also positive cognitive and psychological effects.

The study showed gains in self-esteem in the treatment group and declines in self-esteem in the comparison group. Those in the treatment group also had sustained and slightly improved mental status scores, which mean the activities impacted cognitive function.

Both groups saw increases in depression, but the increase for those in the treatment group was a fraction of that seen in the comparison group.

No additional benefits were seen after 40 weeks, but participants were able to maintain their initial gains. The intervention was quite popular with the study subjects and their caregivers. The program was so popular that it was continued for more than three years, with many of the first participants and their caregivers still engaged.

The lead study author commented, "The clinical findings, from my perspective, go far beyond the statistical findings; people were happier when they were in the treatment group. Two men came in with walkers and left without them."

Maureen A. Wendt is president and CEO of The Dale Association, a non-profit organization that provides senior, mental health, in-home care, caregiver support services and enrichment activities for adults. For more information, visit .

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