The Importance of Cognitive Fitness for Those With Dementia

By now, we are all familiar with physicians’ exhortations to exercise regularly.  The connection between exercise and physical fitness is well-documented and clear cut — even moderate amounts of exercise lead to marked improvements in physical functioning.

What is not as widely publicized, but equally clear cut, is the connection between “brain exercises” and cognitive fitness.  Increasingly, scientists are concluding that our brains are much like muscles in at least one respect – they grow stronger when presented with challenging puzzles, new experiences, and even something as simple as conversation with a friend!

But what about brains that are already exhibiting some form of memory loss?  Is it possible to put a brain that is already showing the effects of a memory-robbing disease through its cognitive paces?  As a social worker in an early memory loss support program, I hear these questions repeatedly.

Clients report that a diagnosis of Mild Cognitive Impairment, Alzheimer’s disease, or vascular dementia, to name a few, feels devastating.  When we envisioned our retirement years, they tell me, we dreamt of more time with family, more opportunities to focus on what we want, and perhaps more opportunities to give back to the world through volunteering.  A diagnosis of memory loss seems to derail those dreams.  How can we focus on what is fun and meaningful, when just focusing is a challenge?

Luckily, scientific research is starting to give us tangible answers.  Recent studies show that “cognitive stimulation,” which can include anything from discussions and word games to music and painting, can improve performance on cognitive tests in persons already diagnosed with some form of mild to moderate dementia.

One of the most vocal advocates for these so-called “social-ceuticals” is Dr. Richard Taylor (www.richardtaylorphd.com), a retired psychologist who was diagnosed with “dementia, probably of the Alzheimer’s type” about 10 years ago.  Not one to shrink from a challenge, Dr. Taylor publicly chronicles his experiences, and in doing so, has become a very vocal advocate for those living with dementia.  His active life is a vivid reminder that a diagnosis of memory loss need not put an end to enjoyable, stimulating, rewarding activities.  Indeed, I see similar reminders at our early memory loss program weekly – beautiful paintings by clients who never thought they had artistic talent, insightful commentary on current events in weekly news discussions, and the discovery of ingenious ways to cope with an insidious disease.  Over and over, clients report that accomplishing these things feels good.  What a delight, then, to see that science is beginning to confirm what we have long suspected – cognitive stimulation has real and beneficial effects on memory and thinking in people with dementia.

The positive effects of these “social-ceuticals” even apply to caregivers, who often feel helpless in the face of a progressive memory loss.  Caregivers who learn about cognitive stimulation and incorporate it into their other care tasks appear to enjoy having something proactive to do, and do not feel more burdened than their untrained counterparts.

For patients and caregivers living with a diagnosis of early memory loss, I encourage you to talk with your doctor not only about medications, but about therapeutic programs and activities in your community.

Written by Annette Juba, LCSW, the Deputy Director of Programs here at AGE of Central Texas. For more information on AGE’s Early Memory Loss Support Services, including brain-boosters activities and a support group, please click here or call 512-600-9275.

(Originally published in Texas Seniors’ Guides Spring 2013)

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