One of our Brain Tuners asked this question and I thought many of you would be interested in Memory Specialist, Dr Allison Lamont’s answer.

Today I found out that my friend has dementia. Would it be worthwhile for her to do some ‘brain tuning exercises’? I can help her with a little daily programme e.g. 10 mins brisk walk (to start) plus some very simple mental arithmetic, a short word list to remember etc. Do you think she can be helped to push back the onset of dementia? Will exercises like these help?

Dr. Lamont replied:

I would be hesitant to say that we can push back the onset of dementia as clearly dementia is already present.

Brain pathology that has already taken place can’t be reversed – however, what we can do is to exercise the memory abilities she has retained to help her make the most of them.

One of the main things everyone can do is to prevent ‘dementia thinking’ in both the person and those around them. For instance, it is very easy to leave someone out of conversations because he or she needs quite a while to formulate what they are going to say. Give your friend time to answer!

Also, don’t assume that it ‘isn’t fair’ to sit while the person with dementia makes you a cup of tea. The more involved the person is in tasks they can do, the better they will be.

‘Brain Tune’ types of exercises will be great. If your friend’s dementia is quite far along the simple arithmetic, for example, might best be done with something practical rather than the mental concept of numbers.

Could you please get the potatoes out of the bag – we will need two each and there will be four of us for dinner.

Sounds simplistic, but it involves a good few mental skills.

I like your idea of the short word lists, too. Be sure the ones you choose are concrete nouns – the names of items rather than abstract words. Remembering pictures of items may also be an easier step rather than the actual words.

e.g. pictures of say, Apple banana pineapple. or Dog, train, chair.

Recalling pictures which in turn bring to mind words gives your friend two chances of catching the memory traces.

Other good ways to stretch the memory are:

  • Reading poetry together
  • Asking her to listen to something on the radio and then ask her about it
  • Ask her about primary school and what she remembers. An early classroom memory is a good place to start – and help her build the memory with questions such as where were the pegs for your coat and bag? Was there a mat on the floor?  Were there desks or tables? What did it smell like?    All of these exercise the skills of remembering and help bring focus.

Doing some cognitive, especially memory, exercises is fun, too.  One of the problems with the earlier stages of dementia is boredom. Because the concentration span is short, it is easy for the person just to drift. Check these: Memory Exercises. You can pause the short videos to give as much processing time as you need.

As much stimulation as possible is beneficial –  e.g. talking books, having as many people interact with her as possible through attending meetings or gatherings for a long as she wants to do this.

I hope these ideas help.  Remember, it is never too late to do something!  The more stimulation the better.

When our mother was well on in dementia, Gillian and I used to spend a lot of time singing Scottish songs to her, reading, and reciting poetry. It was astonishing how often Mum would join in.  Or we did a crossword together – one of Mum’s favourites. Once the connections are established (with lots of clues), the word can just pop out! They are lovely moments.

Other reading: Can we prevent Alzheimer’s? and Take the Brain Tour

Dr. Allison Lamont, Memory Specialist

PhD (Psych), MA (1st), NZPsS, APS, ASSBI.

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