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What Therapy Options Are There for People with Alzheimer’s?

Alzheimer’s is a complex disease with multiple components to it, and so it makes sense that the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease is also multi-faceted. There is no cure for the disease, and there is no treatment that will help stop or get rid of the symptoms, or even slow progression of the disease. Instead, the aims of treatment are to help patients maintain their cognitive functioning, manage behavioral symptoms, and alleviate some of the symptoms that may be most bothersome and impairing quality of life.1

Treatment often depends on the stage of Alzheimer’s a patient is in and the accompanying symptoms. Since symptoms can change over time, as well as vary in severity, treatment plans may shift or remain a fluid work-in-progress. This is why it’s helpful for people with Alzheimer’s disease to have attuned caregivers and see the doctor regularly for check-ups. While treatment can include medications for memory, behavior, or mood, there are also non-drug therapy options available that can be helpful and help bolster quality of life.

Cognitive therapy

Cognitive therapy for patients with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia focuses on addressing cognitive deficits through exercises that target specific cognitive functions in order to improve cognitive functioning.2 This can include reality orientation therapy, skills training, and memory training.2,3 These therapies use guided practice on standardized tasks and may vary based on how much progress the individual makes – but the aim is also to simply maintain functioning in an area.3

Cognitive behavioral therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) not only includes behavioral techniques to help treat mood disorders like depression and anxiety, but also involves cognitive restructuring or changing negative thoughts and beliefs to more positive ones.4 Because CBT does require a certain amount of introspection and reflection, it is most beneficial in the earlier stages of Alzheimer’s disease.4 CBT can also involve couples therapy, which may be especially beneficial for the partner of the person with Alzheimer’s disease.

Occupational therapy

At its most basic, occupational therapy helps individuals do things they want (and/or need) to do by adapting everyday activities in a therapeutic way. For patients with Alzheimer’s disease, this means adapting the environment and figuring out how the person can remain engaged in activities, keep them safe, and maintain quality of life.5 Examples can include having large signs with directions on how to heat up a meal, removing access to dangerous things like sharp objects, removing fall risks, and encouraging remembering long-term memories through pictures and talking about the past. Occupational therapy can be beneficial at every stage of Alzheimer’s disease for both the patient and the caregiver, since the physical, mental, and emotional needs change as the disease progresses.

Music therapy

Music therapy has been shown to have beneficial effects on cognition and neuropsychiatric syndromes.6 It has also had beneficial effects on autobiographical and episodic memories, psychomotor speed, executive functioning, and global cognition.6 There are various kinds of music therapy, including simply listening to music, singing along, and using multisensory stimulation with music. Music therapy should be done with a trained and certified music therapist so they can tailor the therapy to the specific needs of the patient, based on the research. While many studies have shown benefits of music therapy, others have not. Talk with the doctor about whether this may be a beneficial treatment option.

Group exercise programs

It has been documented that exercise can help delay cognitive decline in those with Alzheimer’s disease, as well as potentially reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease – as well as reduce cardiovascular disease, which has its own associations with Alzheimer’s disease.7,8 Exercise helps boost blood flow to the brain and can help reduce high blood pressure and high cholesterol, both of which are also risk factors for dementia.8 A group setting can also provide socialization and reduce isolation, which can help those with Alzheimer’s stay connected to others. Before starting any physical activity, it’s best to check with the person’s doctor to make sure they’re cleared for exercise and to be aware of any possible risks or restrictions they might have.

There are various therapy options that are used to help treat a person with Alzheimer’s disease. Talk with the person’s doctor to see what might be most appropriate for them and about whether there are any considerations to keep in mind.

Written by: Jaime Rochelle Herndon | Last reviewed: June 2019
  1. National Institute on Aging. How is Alzheimer’s Disease Treated? 2018. https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/how-alzheimers-disease-treated Accessed May 13, 2019.
  2. Carrion C, Folkvord F, Anastasiadou D, Aymerich M. Cognitive therapy for dementia patients: A systematic review. Dement Geriatr Cogn Disord. 2018; 46: 1-26. Doi: 10.1159/000490851 Accessed May 16, 2019.
  3. Bahar-Fuchs A, Clare L, Woods B. Cognitive training and cognitive rehabilitation for persons with mild to moderate dementia of the Alzheimer’s or vascular type: A review. Alzheimers Res Ther. 2013; 5(4): 35. Doi: 10.1186/alzrt189 Accessed May 16, 2019.
  4. Forstmeier S, Maercker A, Savaskan E, Roth T. Cognitive behavioural treatment for mild Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers (CBTAC): Study protocol for a randomized controlled trial. Trials. 2015; 16: 526. Doi: 10.1186/s13063-015-1043-0 Accessed May 16, 2019.
  5. The American Occupational Therapy Association. Alzheimer’s Disease Tip Sheet. https://www.aota.org/About-Occupational-Therapy/Patients-Clients/Adults/Alzheimers.aspx 2011. Accessed May 16, 2019.
  6. Fang R, Ye S, Huangfu J, Calimag DP. Music therapy is a potential intervention for cognition of Alzheimer’s disease: A mini-review. Transl Neurodegener. 2017; 6: 2. Doi: 10.1186/s40035-017-0073-9
  7. Panza GA, Taylor BA, MacDonald HV, Johnson BT, Zaleski AL, Livingston J et al. Can exercise improve cognitive symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease? Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. 2018; 66(3): 487-495. Doi: 10.1111/jgs.15241 Alzheimer’s Association. Stay Physically Active. 2019. https://www.alz.org/help-support/brain_health/stay_physically_active Accessed May 16, 2019.