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Can exercise help carers and people with dementia?

There is increased pressure to find forms of support other than drugs to manage some of the difficult symptoms of dementia, like agitation and disturbed sleep. Possible approaches include music therapy, behavioural interventions and exercise.

An NIHR study started with a literature review to assess the evidence on exercise. It found limited, but promising, evidence to support the use of exercise to address the behavioural and psychological symptoms of dementia. But existing studies were often small, exercise was often combined with other kinds of support and research did not make it clear what kinds and levels of exercise provide best results.

To address this, the team designed a randomised clinical trial to test a tailored walking programme for pairs of people with dementia and their carers. Each pair walked for at least 30 minutes, five times a week, with initial support from an exercise coach. This was a reasonably large trial of this kind, with 131 pairs of people with dementia and carers. Outcomes were tested after six and twelve weeks.

The study found no clinical benefits to people with dementia from regular walking but they did find that caregiver burden decreased significantly. It was not clear whether this was an effect of the exercise itself or of positive contact between the person with dementia and their carer. The research provides interesting new evidence on reducing carer burden.

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