"Most of the research on dementia and most of the dollars up until this point have gone into pharmacological interventions," said Sandy Burgener, a professor of nursing at the University of Illinois and lead author on the study.
"But we have evidence now from studies like mine that show that other approaches can make a difference in the way people live and can possibly also impact their cognitive function," Burgener added.
In the study, 24 people with early stage dementia participated in an intensive 40-week program.
The intervention included biweekly sessions of cognitive behavioral therapy and support groups, along with three sessions per week of traditional Chinese martial arts exercises and meditation, called qigong (chee-gong) and Taiji (tye-jee).
A comparison group of people with early stage dementia did not participate in these programs for the first 20 weeks of the intervention.
The researchers found that participants in the program benefited in a variety of ways. After 20 weeks, those in the treatment group improved in several measures of physical function, including balance and lower leg strength, while those in the comparison group did not. There were also positive cognitive and psychological effects.
"We saw gains in self-esteem in the treatment group and pretty severe declines in self-esteem in the comparison group. Those in the treatment group also had sustained and slightly improved mental status scores, which meant we were impacting cognitive function," Burgener said.
Burgener said that both groups saw increases in depression but the increase for those in the treatment group was a fraction of that seen in the comparison group.
No additional benefits were seen after 40 weeks, but participants were able to maintain their initial gains. The intervention was quite popular with the study subjects and their caregivers.
Burgener said that previous studies have shown that such programs can work as well as anti-dementia drugs.
The findings are published in the American Journal of Alzheimer's Disease and Other Dementias.