Physical Activity and Dementia: What You Need to Know for Prevention and Treatment

Physical Activity and Dementia: What You Need to Know for Prevention and Treatment

by Julie Gazzoli, PT, Valley Medical Center Rehabilitation Services

It’s easy to make the logical connection between physical activity which promotes overall health and helps our bodies recover from illness and injury. But did you know the positive impact physical activity has on our brains, specifically in preventing and diminishing the effects of dementia?

Dementia causes significantly impaired intellectual function and interferes with normal activities and relationships. According to the Dementia Society of America, it affects more than 9 million Americans, with that number expected to triple in the next 40 years.

At Valley Medical Center, many of our patients either have, or are at risk of developing, some form of dementia including:

Alzheimer’s diseaseVascular dementiaLewy dody dementia
Frontotemporal dementiaMinimal cognitive impairmentMixed dementia

33% of all dementia cases are preventable 

Extensive research has demonstrated that physical activity is associated with a 30% to 50% reduction in cognitive decline and dementia via reducing obesity, improving circulation, lowering inflammatory markers and enhancing neuronal function. One Canadian study demonstrated that the risk of dementia in inactive older adults was similar for those who had a genetic predisposition. Are there any risk factors that you can address to minimize your risk? Yes!

You can’t change your genes, but you can change your lifestyle!

Regular exercise Hearing loss
Social engagement High blood pressure
Healthy diet Smoking
Mental stimulation Obesity
Quality sleep Depression
Stress management Diabetes

It’s not too late to start

A Norwegian University study of more than 30,000 middle-aged people showed that those who became fit after previously being sedentary experienced the same 50% reduction in risk of dementia as those who maintained their fitness.

Short on time? Short intense interval training is effective

Researchers at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, recruited 64 sedentary men and women 60+ years, and found that a 10-minute workout including two minutes warm-up, three minutes cool-down and three rounds of 20 second “all-out” cycle-sprinting mixed with easy cycling, yielded the same benefits as 45-minutes of moderate cycling.

What if you have pain, medical problems or just don’t know where to start?

Physical therapy can reduce pain, treat the side effects of medical problems, including dementia, and improve overall well-being through the benefits listed below:

Enhance strength & flexibilityImprove balance & reduce fall risk
Optimize sleep & reduce stressDevelop stamina & endurance
Improve & maintain independenceEngage in long-term healthy lifestyle
Lower aggression & improve moodImprove & maintain activity engagement
Slow loss of memoryImprove quality of life

Skilled physical therapy can be extremely effective in treating those with all levels of dementia and is covered by insurance, including Medicare.

Even for patients with advanced dementia, physical therapy should not be overlooked

One study found that people with Alzheimer’s disease who regularly participated in physical therapy over a 24-month period had fewer hospitalizations related to behavioral problems.

Physical therapists can use strengths such as procedural and emotional memory, as well as history gathered from family, to provide effective treatments.

  • Procedural memory involves automatic-type actions such as knowing how to walk or get up from a chair
  • Emotional memory is related to emotions felt during prior experiences which can signal fear or trust in another

For those whose activities are diminished by dementia, physical therapists are trained to help adapt activities previously performed and enjoyed—learning to adapt these activities can keep loved ones at home and able to interact longer.

For more information, visit or call Valley Medical Center Rehabilitation Services 425.690.3650.

About The Author

Valley Medical Center's Marketing and Community Outreach Office