Study Says Exercise Before Meals Improves Dementia Patients’ Nutrition, Social Skills, Independence

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There is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s and similar forms of dementia, but we can combat the many comorbid disorders and related difficulties people with dementia often face. Now a team of researchers has found that exercise prior to mealtimes has a variety of physical, mental, and social health benefits for the elderly.

The team trialed two different types of activities on two groups of dementia patients living in “dementia plus” care home units before lunch and teatime. The first was an interactive activity involving music which required patients to move around. The other was a table-based game involving light projections. A handful of dementia patients took part in the activities every day, while others simply participated when they felt up to it.

Managers of the care homes reported that when the patients participated in activities before mealtimes, they were calmer, more sociable, and more able to feed themselves if they’d needed assistance in the past. Most participants also ate more, even asking for second helpings, and several of them gained weight.

Malnutrition and dehydration are often issues for people with dementia, because they may forget how to feed themselves or no longer have an appetite for the foods they once loved. It’s also common for people with dementia to experience trouble swallowing. After a brief period of moderate activity, however, researchers found that patients ate more independently, had better appetites, and gained weight over time.

“Sometimes people forget to eat – they forget that they’re hungry – and sometimes if they are in a certain place in their mind at mealtimes it can affect the way they eat and what they eat,” explained Whittle Hall care home manager Deborah Payne.

Dementia patients also suffer quite frequently from loneliness, because dementia steals their communication abilities and makes them forget the people they used to know and love. The researchers report that the amount of socialization between patients went up if they exercised prior to mealtimes, which is great news for the quality of life of elderly people suffering from dementia, especially those who live in group home settings where they have access to social engagements but often choose not to partake.

Happily, it seems that the exercise required to improve appetite, socialization, motor skills, and mood is not very vigorous—anyone can participate, no matter how old or frail. Even those who can no longer talk showed signs of engagement and mood improvement in the study. The mere act of engaging the brain and body in an activity for five minutes seems to have vast benefits.

“It took a lot of planning and tenacity to see it through in every detail, and the results speak for themselves,” says Payne. She says the project showed her that everything she and her staff do with the residents is an activity and an opportunity to boost their engagement and wellbeing.

“For people living with dementia it can be a lonely life,” Payne continues. “If we can connect and engage people through timely activities that would otherwise live in isolation, then we are doing something wonderful.”

L&M Healthcare, which runs Whittle Hall, reports that a university has also reached out in the hopes of conducting a similar study. With any luck, their research will lend more credibility to the data already collected, and more care homes can begin implementing simple programs like this one to help their patients get healthier both physically and mentally.

Do you care for a dementia patient or work for an assisted living facility or nursing home? What do you do to engage people with dementia who are in your care? We’d love to hear about the positive results your efforts have garnered!

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Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?
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