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Alzheimer's Disease Health Center

Exercise May Help People With Alzheimer's Avoid Nursing Homes

Study finds regular activity delays physical decline, reduces falls
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Patients in the group-exercise classes traveled to an adult care center twice a week, where two physical therapists guided them through exercises to improve endurance, balance, strength and mental function.

The patients in the usual-care group were followed by the study nurses and were given advice on nutrition and exercise.

After one year, all the groups saw declines in physical function, but the groups that exercised regularly fared better than those who got usual care. Those in the home-exercise group did the best. Their physical function declined about half as much as that of the control group. Importantly, they also had half as many falls as those who got usual care.

Group exercisers showed some signs of better health -- their strength improved over the course of the year -- but those results were not statistically significant. And although the study found an association between exercise and better health among Alzheimer's patients, it didn't prove a cause-and-effect relationship.

The researchers think one reason the group exercisers didn't see bigger benefits was because they were more likely to skip their sessions than those who exercised at home.

"When the taxi came to the person's home to take them to the group-based exercise, they could say often, 'Today I'm tired; I'm not coming,'" Pitkala said. "When there's a person coming to your home and telling you, 'Let's do a little bit today,' it's much easier to say yes than it is to go outside your home."

During the year they exercised, patients in the home group had fewer hospital admissions and about half as many falls as those in the control group. The money they saved on medical bills more than offset the cost of regular private sessions with a physical therapist. The average annual cost of caring for a patient in the home-exercise group was about $25,000, but it was about $34,000 for patients who received only usual care. The annual cost for group-exercise patients was even lower, at about $22,000.

Another expert who was not involved in the study praised the research and said it offered a practical blueprint to improve the lives of patients and families affected by Alzheimer's disease.

"If you can do something that can improve their physical functioning and mobility and help them stay home and not actually cost anything -- or be cost neutral -- I think you can make a huge potential impact on a family's quality of life," said Dr. James Galvin, a professor of neurology and psychiatry at NYU Langone School of Medicine, in New York City.

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