10 Non-Drug Approaches to Improve Cognition in Dementia

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Exercising Together/ kali9 E+/ Getty Images.

Dementia- which includes Alzheimer's disease, Lewy body dementia, frontotemporal dementia andvascular dementia- is a progressive condition where cognitive functioning gradually deteriorates over time.

There are a handful of medications that have been approved by the FDA for treatment. These include a category called cholinesterase Inhibitors, of which there are three currently prescribed:

  • Exelon (revastigmine): Approved for mild to moderate Alzheimer's
  • Razadyne (galantamine): Approved for mild to moderate Alzheimer's

One other medication has been approved for treatment: Namenda (memantine), which is classified as a N-Methyl D-Aspartate (NMDA) Antagonist medication.

Outside of these treatments -which are limited in their effectiveness- researchers, families, patients and professionals look to non-drug approaches, which begs the following question:

Are There Any Non-Drug Approaches that actually Benefit Cognition in Dementia?

There are many different non-drug approaches to treat the behavioral, emotional and psychological challenges that arise from dementia. But what about treatments that improve cognitive functioning?

Although there are medications being tested in clinical trials for Alzheimer's treatment, no new medications have been approved since 2003 by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for Alzheimer's disease.

So, is there anything out there besides medication that research says will help improve memory, word-finding, processing speed or overall cognition if dementia is present?

10 Non-Drug Researched Options that May Improve Cognition in Dementia

In order to be included in this list, these interventions must have been evaluated through scientific research studies and demonstrated some improvement in cognition in mild cognitive impairment or dementia.

(A reminder: At this time, there is no cure for dementia. These approaches have demonstrated a measure of effectiveness for a limited amount of time, as opposed to a full reversal of cognitive loss.)

The non-medication approaches that make the cut include:

1. Physical Exercise

The effects of physical exercise have been studied repeatedly, and the results have consistently shown improved cognition, both for people with dementia and those without.

One type of physical exercise has risen above the rest in studies comparing different kinds of exercise and its benefit to people with dementia.

2. Bright Light Therapy

Similar to the use of a light box for seasonal affective disorder, bright light therapy has shown multiple benefits for people with Alzheimer's and vascular dementia.

3. Mental Activity

A review of 15 different studies found that stretching the "muscle" of the brain through mental activity can result in improved memory and other cognitive abilities.

4. Curcumin

Curcumin is found in the spice tumeric and is often used to make curries.

Research has shown some limited benefit related to use of curcumin in dementia, although it can be challenging for the body to fully absorb curcumin.

5. Berries

Eating berries has been correlated with improved cognition in people with mild cognitive impairment.

6. Walnuts

Multiple studies have been conducted on the effect of nuts (often walnuts) on cognitive abilities and the results have been promising.

7. Vitamin E

Vitamin E has had mixed results. Some studies have demonstrated improved ADL functioning in people with mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease.

8. Caffeine/Coffee

Research studies have correlated caffeine consumption with improved memory in dementia as well as the lack of progression of mild cognitive impairment to Alzheimer's disease.

9. Meaningful Activities

Some research has found that engaging in meaningful activities such as social interaction has been tied to maintaining stability in mild cognitive impairment-- in other words, not progressing to Alzheimer's disease. Spending time outside has also been connected limitedly with improved mental abilities in people with dementia.

10. Music Therapy

Using music for people who have dementia offers many benefits, including the possibility of improved cognitive abilities.

Other Non-Drug Approaches that Are Being Tested

A couple of other non-drug (but definitely medical) approaches include transcranial magnetic stimulation and deep brain stimulation. Both of these have shown promising results in smaller studies but require more testing before they could be available to the public. Although they don't involve medication, they would require administration or surgical procedures by highly trained physicians and the process would need to first be approved for treating Alzheimer's (or accomplished through a clinical trial) being an option.

DISCLAIMER

**Please note that the information included on this website and linked to both on and from this site is not medical advice and is for guidance and information only. I have made every effort to report information that is medically accurate and scientifically researched, but this is not a substitute for care and guidance from a physician. You should not change care and treatment regimens without consulting with a physician.**

Sources:

Alzheimer's Association. Current Alzheimer's Treatments. Accessed March 30, 2015.  http://www.alz.org/research/science/alzheimers_disease_treatments.asp

The Arts in Psychotherapy. Volume 38, Issue 4, September 2011, Pages 221–228.Songwriting oriented activities improve the cognitive functions of the aged with dementia. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0197455611000517

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