THE BLOG
05/24/2011 09:21 am ET Updated Jul 24, 2011

Alzheimer's: Take a Pill or Take a Walk?

Alzheimer's disease is in the news every day. Some stories offer hope, such as promises to end Alzheimer's in five years, or promises hat biological markers will make early diagnosis possible in a very short time, as if knowing that you have a dementia will help you.

Informed experts know that despite positive scientific research news, medications to improve cognition are presently useful only for some people some of the time, and only when prescribed judiciously. The news about medication is particularly disappointing lately. For example, the off-label use of a much-prescribed drug in early stages of Alzheimer's has been found to be ineffective.

In fact, non-pharmacological lifestyle changes are more promising for immediate help, with often reported significant statistical correlations or causal relationships between improved quality of life among those with dementia and music, exercise, knowing a second language, or taking a walk -- London Telegraph Article ½ Hour walk Cuts Alzheimer's Risk.

Should we continue to wait anxiously for a pill to solve our problems with dementia, or is it time to search seriously for other ways to deal with this condition? It depends on our time frame.

For your and my children and grandchildren, scientific and pharmaceutical discoveries may herald a positive future. Why so long? Because even if there were a significant scientific breakthrough today in animal models or in a Petri dish, it is likely to take a decade or more to translate bench research into a medication useful in regenerating brains or meaningfully slowing down symptoms.

For those living with dementia today -- 5.4 million Americans, more than 30 million people worldwide -- and for the 44 percent of adults in the U.S. with a family member or a friend with Alzheimer's, we have to look into non-pharmacological ways to improve our quality of life with dementia, such as going to museums, taking a tai chi course, keeping a memory book, learning a second language or taking a daily walk.

What can you do?

Can a person with mild or even moderate memory loss safely take a walk regularly without getting confused about when and where? Yes they can, and here's what you can do to help.

If you have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, plan a route, ask others you know to walk with you and start walking. Call it a "Walking Club." Recruit your partner, neighbors, friends and your children. Establish a routine that suits your way of life: Up at 8 a.m., breakfast at 8:30, dress for the walk at 9, friends over at 9:15, out the door at 9:30, the same 30-minute path each day, and back at 10.

Create a large-print schedule and put it on the wall; laminate it so that it feels official. Include a map of the walking path you have decided on, with pictures of significant landmarks and actual directions; insert the times you expect to pass each landmark and arrive home. If walking isn't your thing, figure out another way to exercise for 30 minutes a day, and recruit others to join your "30-Minutes-a-Day" Club.

If you live with or care for a person with Alzheimer's, it probably is not a bad idea for you to take a daily walk as well: exercise lowers cholesterol, lowers the need for insulin for those with diabetes and maintains mental alertness. Organize yourself to take a half hour walk at the same time every day. Invite the person with dementia to walk with you; tell her that you don't like to walk alone and that you need help to make sure you keep up the daily walks -- both true. If she says no, take the walks by yourself to begin with, and keep up the invitation.

The best path is simple and clear, has boundaries on both sides (for example, plantings) and passes landmarks like a corner store or a school. There is no chance of confusion on a path like this.

If there are shops along the way, stop to let salespeople know what you are doing so that they can be part of your safety net. Just in case, leave a note with a photo, the name of a friend and a phone number. Don't be embarrassed to involve the community. This video interview with a person in a very early stage of dementia conveys the benefits of a daily walk. As his dementia progresses he will be able to fall back on the path he has learned at this time.

Become active in your community and advocate for the town to establish walking clubs in public parks for people with memory issues and their partners, like the evidence-based walking clubs that an organization called Dementia Adventure are promoting around the U.K.

Never forget that while dementia is a terrible condition, millions of people in the U.S. and around the world with a diagnosis of Alzheimer's are keeping as healthy as they can -- both body and mind.