Early Signs of Alzheimer’s Disease? Physical Therapy Can Help

Every little slip of memory seems frightening, especially as we get older. How scared should you be of dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease (AD)?

Alzheimer’s is a progressive disorder that causes brain cell degeneration and death. It is the leading cause of dementia, which is marked by memory loss and a decline in cognitive, behavioral and social skills.

Early signs of Alzheimer’s Disease

If you are experiencing some of the early symptoms of AD, you may be having difficulty with:

  • Balance. You may find yourself catching a toe as you walk or taking an extra step to keep yourself from falling.
  • Mobility. Getting in and out of a chair or tub may become difficult. Mobility issues, too, increase the risk of falling.
  • Activities of daily living (ADL). You may need more time for dressing and bathing.
  • Memory. It can become difficult to recall recent conversations or where you left your keys. 
  • Cognition. Signs of cognitive impairment include forgetting appointments and having trouble with the sequence of events needed to perform a complex task.
  • Mood changes. Bouts with depression and irritability can evolve into aggression or physical/verbal outbursts.

Get physical

Regular physical exercise can slow the progression of AD in multiple ways:

  1. Lessen the risk of a fall. Exercise typically improves balance, flexibility, mobility, and bone and muscle strength which, in turn, can aid stability and muscle memory. Making sure you have a steady gait will decrease the likelihood of a debilitating fall.
  2.  Slow the chemical process of AD in the brain. Amyloid-β (Aβ), a protein that aggregates into plaques in the brains of AD patients, has been shown to impair gait speed, balance and muscle strength. Irisin, a substance produced in the body during exercise, was shown by a study at Inje University in South Korea to suppress the accumulation of Aβ deposits and may be key to protecting the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain responsible for memory and the area most affected by AD. 
  3. Improve brain function. Activity boosts blood flow to the brain, which can help improve brain function. The amount of gray and white matter in the brain also can increase, reversing AD’s damage to these areas. According to studies done at Oxford University, gray matter, which houses the neurons in the brain, is responsible for muscle control, memory, emotions, speech, decision-making, self-control and sensory perception. Damage to this area shows up in many of the symptoms of AD.
  4. Slow memory loss. One key is not to stop! Regular, long-term physical activity has been shown to promote growth in the hippocampus, slowing memory loss.
  5. Diminish mood changes. Exercise and stretching motions release endorphins in the brain, inducing a calming effect. Research indicates that behavioral changes can be caused by gray matter damage, and studies from the Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing in Boca Raton, FL, have shown that regular physical activity can decrease mood changes and mitigate aggressive behavior.

And get physical therapy

Which exercises and physical activities will best target those areas of AD damage? A physical therapist can design a regimen of physical therapy that may be able to slow the advancement of AD symptoms or improve specific cognitive and neuromotor functions.

Physical therapist Patrick Donovan, owner of Heather Lane Physical Therapy in Denver, says he also recommends acquiring devices that can provide safeguards in the home. Walkers, handrails in bathrooms, guardrails on beds and even something simple like Velcro fasteners can assist you with everyday activities, limiting the risk of injury and helping you to maintain independence.

Donovan says, “Through physical therapy intervention, we aim to help Alzheimer’s Disease patients to alleviate many of the symptoms commonly associated with this progressive and debilitating disorder, enabling people with AD to be productive and independent longer and mitigating risk of injury.” Initiating treatment early can be key in maintaining the AD patient’s quality of life and making living arrangements and plans that can help ensure the patient’s continued independence and safety.

Further Reading:

Dao, E., et al. (2019) Cerebral Amyloid-β Deposition is Associated with Impaired Gait and Lower Extremity Function. J Alzheimers Dis. Epub ahead of print 2019 Feb 7. doi: 10.3233/JAD-180848

Douaud, G., et al. (2014) A common brain network links development, aging, and vulnerability to disease. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 111(49):17648-17653.  doi:10.1073/pnas.1410378111

Gomez, M. (2015, April 20). Research Reveals the Role of Grey Matter in Alzheimer’s. Retrieved from Alzheimers.net.

Jin, Y., et al. (2018) Molecular and Functional Interaction of the Myokine Irisin with Physical Exercise and Alzheimer’s Disease. Molecules. 23(12):3229. doi: 10.3390/molecules23123229.

Jo, C. (2018, December 7). 4 Ways Physical Therapy Slows the Symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Retrieved from Alzheimers.net. 

Williams, C. and Tappen, R. (2007) Effect of Exercise on Mood in Nursing Home Residents with Alzheimer’s Disease. Am J Alzheimers Dis Other Demen. 22(5):389-397. doi: 10.1177/1533317507305588

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