Taking an active stand against dementia

FAU researchers develop a medication-free dementia therapy

Following a special programme of exercise, mental activities and practical, daily training can delay the onset of dementia over the long-term – without the need for medication. Such are the findings of a study conducted by a research team headed by Prof. Dr. Elmar Gräßel from the Psychiatric and Psychotherapy Clinic at the Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU) University Clinic. Scientists have developed a therapy for dementia sufferers and tested it for a year with residents at Bavarian care homes. They have now published their research findings in the renowned journal Biomed Central Medicine. (www.biomedcentral.com/content/pdf/1741-7015-9-129.pdf)

Dementia can have many different causes. Its symptoms include confusion, loss of memory, and language and comprehension problems. Regardless of the speed at which dementia develops, it unfailingly entails mental and physical decline. The disease can become a major burden for both the patients affected and their loved ones. According to the Erlangen researchers, this new “MAKS” activation therapy can stave off the advance of dementia by at least twelve months.

The MAKS programme is a holistic therapy concept based on movement, thought and independence in daily life. The German abbreviation MAKS stands for “physical, practical for everyday life, cognitive and spiritual”. Sports like bowling and croquet, balance exercises and cognitive tasks such as word games are all part of the programme, as are daily activities such as preparing food, gardening and handicrafts. Moreover, the MAKS therapy features a “spiritual element” which, among other aspects, takes account of existential questions surrounding old age but also includes singing as a group. “The individual elements of the therapy are certainly nothing new”, stresses Professor Gräßel, “but we have developed them further. That is to say, we have refined them for the abilities of dementia sufferers”. The academics have produced a manual detailing a wide array of new tasks and revised cognitive exercises. These have been categorised by level of difficulty. In this way, the MAKS therapy can be applied in all care facilities using the same model.”

A total of 50 residents from five Bavarian care facilities took part in the activation therapy test study. They were supported using the MAKS programme in groups of ten for two hours per day, six days per week. The participants also used the care homes’ regular services. No restrictions were placed on taking medication of any type. Twelve months after the therapy began, the MAKS participants’ cognitive and day-to-day practical abilities were stable, report the Erlangen researchers. However, in the control group, which was also made up of 50 people, these abilities continued to deteriorate, particularly in the second half of the research year.

Professor Gräßel summarises the study’s results as follows: “If you compare the effectiveness of MAKS activation with medication against Alzheimer’s/dementia from other studies, the following picture emerges: in mild or moderate cases of dementia, MAKS therapy is as effective on dementia patients’ mental abilities as specialist medication to treat Alzheimer’s/dementia, and significantly more effective with regard to day-to-day practical abilities”. This shows that the MAKS therapy is suited to improving the quality of life of dementia sufferers in care homes. Moreover, a great deal of positive feedback was received from the care homes. For example, they said that some participants were more alert, in a better mood, better company and showed more of their own initiative.

In light of this, the academics now intend to carry out associated research projects to ascertain whether it is possible to use the therapy programme to stem the progression of dementia over a longer period of time and how it can be applied in outpatient care, particularly day care. “But what is important now, is the combined application of all therapies that have been scientifically proven to be effective,” stresses Gräßel. This would mean that dementia patients would receive both treatment with anti-dementia medication and effective, non-medicinal therapies, in order to influence the progression of the disease as best as possible.

More information on the “MAKS” project is available online at www.maks-aktiv.de

MAKS therapy manual:
Birgit Eichenseer, Elmar Gräßel: Aktivierungstherapie für Menschen mit Demenz. [Activation therapy for dementia sufferers.] Munich: Urban & Fischer, 2011. ISBN: 978-3-437-28020-7

More information for the media:

Prof. Dr. Elmar Gräßel
Tel.: 09131/85-34810

uni | media service | research No. 8/2012 on 9.3.2012