By Alex Greenspan, MSPT , Outreach CEO
When you think of therapy for cognitive decline, what do you picture? Is it a Speech-Language Pathologist working on memory tasks? Is it an Occupational Therapist adapting the patient’s environment so that they can function better within it?
What about a Physical Therapist doing exercise and balance training?
While the first two might pop to mind more easily (and are also important parts of cognitive rehabilitation!), it’s important to remember that Physical Therapy can also have a significant impact on cognitive function.
According to the NIH and National Cancer institute, cognitive decline is marked by “problems with a person’s ability to think, learn, remember, use judgment, and make decisions”. Signs of cognitive impairment might include memory loss, difficulty concentrating or seeing tasks through, following directions (which could be an issue of understanding the directions, remembering them, or following through), and problem-solving.
Cognitive impairment looks different for everyone, and individuals may or may not have disorientation (a decrease in awareness of their surroundings), or changes to their mood or behavior. Any of these symptoms might be mild to severe.
People can develop cognitive issues as a complication of multiple different conditions, including dementia, a stroke, Parkinson’s disease, or a traumatic brain injury.
So what does that have to do with Physical Therapy?
Your brain loves exercise! Physically active people are overall less likely to experience cognitive decline, and exercise is associated with a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease.
The neurologist Gabriel Léger points out that even though it’s only roughly 3 pounds, your brain receives about 15% of your blood flow, making it all the more important to get your blood pumping – and that’s part of why he recommends physical therapy for all of his patients with dementia.
Moving your muscles also uses brain power. Your brain helps control your coordination and balance, and tells the muscles when and how much to move. Challenging yourself physically is a form of exercise for the brain, as well. Just 6 minutes of physical activity per day has been shown to have positive effects on not only fatigue and energy levels, but also on mood and levels of confusion, and additional effects have been found with 20-30 minutes of exercise per day. Another study found that adults who were physically inactive were almost twice as likely to experience cognitive decline.
A physical therapist can assist in building your confidence as a result of an individualized and tailored balance and functional strength program. In turn, this can lead to greater independence – and not only with day to day exercising, but perhaps with your memory, too.