Does Alzheimer's Disease Affect Physical Ability and Functioning?

Alzheimer's Can Affect Physical Abilities Such as Walking
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Alzheimer’s disease is known for its effects on memory, word-finding, communication, and behavior. But what about a physical ability and functioning, such walking? Or the use of the arms? Does Alzheimer’s affect the body as well as the brain?

Early Stages of Alzheimer’s

In the early stages of Alzheimer’s, physical ability remains largely intact. It’s not uncommon for people with early dementia to walk for more than a mile at a time and appear to have completely normal functioning.

It’s often difficult to tell that someone has early stage dementia just by looking at them. In fact, it may appear there is nothing wrong with them.

Middle Stages of Alzheimer’s

As Alzheimer’s progresses into the middle stages, the physical ability of people begins to decline. The brain forgets how to make the muscles work to walk, and feeding oneself becomes more difficult. The phrase “Use it or lose it” in terms of muscle ability applies here. The physical ability to hold urine and bowel movements declines, as does the mental ability to interpret the body’s signals.

Late Stages of Alzheimer’s

In the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease, physical ability is significantly compromised. Walking and range of motion are severely limited. Most people in this stage of dementia need to be fed by someone else and some develop difficulty with swallowing and choking. Contractures, where a leg, arm or hand is bent too far and is difficult to straighten out, can develop because the person doesn’t use the muscle enough.

Eventually, loved ones are faced with end-of-life decisions.

What Can Caregivers Do to Help?

There’s no cure for Alzheimer’s yet, but there are a few things family and caregivers can do to increase the quality of life for a person with dementia as it related to their physical abilities.

    Encourage the person to continue exercising such as going for walks, stretching their limbs, and being as independent as possible with other activities of daily living.

    • Physical and Occupational Therapy

    If you notice a decline in the ability to walk or get dressed, or in your loved one's balance, consider arranging for some physical or occupational therapy. These therapists can help build up strength, reinforce self-care in the early and middle stages and work to prevent falls by improving balance. They can also do a home visit to identify safety hazards in the home.

    In the later stages of Alzheimer's, your loved one might benefit from gentle range of motion exercises. These exercises are usually accomplished by the caregiver carefully (and as taught by a physical or occupational therapist) moving the arms, wrists, hands, legs and feet to stretch them so that they are less likely to develop painful contractures.

    As is the case with most conditions, adequate nutrition can help maintain physical functioning.

    Sometimes, difficulties in eating and drinking can make nutrition a challenge in dementia.

    Because physical movement is limited in the later stages of dementia, take precautions to prevent skin breakdown as well.

    Related Reading

    Sources:

    Alzheimer's Association. Late Stage Caregiving. Accessed March 27, 2014. http://www.alz.org/care/alzheimers-late-end-stage-caregiving.asp

    Alzheimer's Association. Seven Stages of Alzheimer's. Accessed March 27, 2014. http://www.alz.org/alzheimers_disease_stages_of_alzheimers.asp

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