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05/06/2014 11:29 am ET Updated May 06, 2014

Surprising Treatment For Alzheimer's Shows Promising Results

Stephen Simpson via Getty Images

Who knew a farm could be the answer to coping with the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease? A new study says that spending time with horses could provide much needed relief to dementia sufferers, both helping them physically and mentally.

While Alzheimer's disease is most commonly associated with memory loss, it is often accompanied by personality changes, like irritability and withdrawal, which are a result of brain changes due to the disease and the frustration of memory loss.

Care centers keep patients occupied with light exercises, crafts, and other activities. But Ohio State University researchers set out to see if equine therapy could have a positive effect on the mood of sufferers. They paired up with the National Church Residences Center for Senior Health in Columbus, Ohio and recruited 16 patients for a short study.

Once a week for a month, half of the patients would visit the Field of Dreams Equine Education Center and spend time feeding, grooming, and walking therapy horses. The result is simply heartwarming. They were seen to smile, laugh, and even talk to the horses as they interacted with them.

"The experience immediately lifted their mood and we saw a connection to fewer incidents of negative behavior," said study author Holly Dabelko-Schoeny. Following visits to the center, patients were less likely to show resistance to care efforts or become agitated later on in the day, as they normally might. Even patients who were normally withdrawn seemed to take an active interest in the horses and stayed engaged during the visits.

Over the course of a month, the group that visited the therapy center showed improvements in dementia behaviors compared with those who didn't. An added bonus was that the visits got the patients up and moving, even if they typically were reluctant to.

Other animals also have been shown to help Alzheimer's patients. A University of Nebraska study found spending time with therapy dogs helped patients cope with the agitation and aggression that can accompany the disease, known as "sundown syndrome." Another study conducted by Purdue University found aquariums with brightly colored fish helped calm and relax Alzheimer's patients and could keep them occupied for up to half an hour.

Since there's no cure for Alzheimer's, researchers say the focus for patient care needs to be on making life easier for both patients and their families. "Our focus is on the 'now.' What can we do to make them feel better and enjoy themselves right now?" Dabelko-Schoeny said. "Even if they don't remember it later, how can we help in this moment?"

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