Just two hours a day spent keeping the mind and body busy is as effective at warding off dementia as drug treatment, according to a new study.
Research from the University of Erlangen in Germany, published in the journal BMC Medicine, showed that a series of everyday games, puzzles and tasks was able to postpone decline in cognitive function in dementia patients and in their ability to carry out everyday activities for at least a year.
The two-hour therapy session, known as MAKS, was carried out in nursing homes in Bavaria. Sessions began with a 10-minute "spiritual" introduction, in which the 98 participants discussed topics such as "happiness", or sang a song or hymn.
This was followed by 30 minutes of gentle exercise, such as bowling or croquet, and half an hour of solving puzzles in groups. Finally the patients spent 40 minutes performing everyday activities like preparing a snack, simple gardening work or doing woodwork.
The impact upon patients' cognitive function was at least as good as treatment with cholinesterase inhibitors, which are typically prescribed to treat dementia. The patients' ability to perform daily living tasks was twice as high as achieved with medication.
Professor Elmar Graessel said: "While we observed a better result for patients with mild to moderate dementia, the result of MAKS therapy on ADAS (Alzheimer's Disease Assessment Scale which determines cognitive function) was at least as good as treatment with cholinesterase inhibitors.
"Additionally we found that the effect on the patients' ability to perform daily living tasks, as measured by the Erlanger Test of Daily Living (E-ADL), was twice as high as achieved by medication.
"This means that MAKS therapy is able to extend the quality of, and participation in, life for people with dementia within a nursing home environment.
"We are currently in the process of extending these preliminary results to see if this prevention of dementia decline can be maintained over a longer time period."
The randomised, controlled, single-blind longitudinal trial of nursing home patients with primary degenerative dementia was conducted for two hours a day, six days a week, for a year.