More than 5 million people in the US are living with Alzheimer's disease. Now, a new study from Ohio State University suggests an activity that may ease symptoms of the condition; caring for horses.
Such activity is known as equine therapy. It uses interaction with horses to stimulate emotional well-being in an array of disorders, including depression, cerebral palsy and autism. According to the research team, it is a common treatment for children and teenagers with emotional and developmental disorders and involves grooming, feeding and walking horses.
But in this latest study, published in the journal Anthrozoös, the researchers found that the therapy could be effective for people with Alzheimer's disease.
The main symptom of Alzheimer's is memory loss. But alongside this, individuals can experience mood changes, increased anxiety and depression.
Holly Dabelko-Schoeny, associate professor of social work at Ohio State and study co-author, says that as well as finding treatments to prevent or treat Alzheimer's, it is important to find ways to ease the emotional burdens of the disease.
"Our focus is on the 'now.' What can we do to make them feel better and enjoy themselves right now? Even if they don't remember it later, how can we help in this moment?" she adds.
Comparing equine therapy with activities in adult daycare centers
The investigators assessed 16 participants with Alzheimer's, of which nine were women and seven were men. All participants usually take part in activities to manage their Alzheimer's, such as crafts and exercise programs.
Researchers found that equine therapy boosted mood and reduced negative behavior for people with Alzheimer's disease.
Image Credit: The Ohio State University.
For this study, eight of the subjects continued with their usual activities at an adult daycare center, while the other eight took part in equine therapy at a farm once a week for 1 month.
During the equine therapy, participants were required to feed horses buckets of grass, as well as groom, bathe and walk them.
The researchers monitored the subjects' behavior during all activities using the Modified Nursing Home Behavior Problem Scale.
Through this, the team rated how often a participant fidgeted, resisted care, lost their temper or became upset. A score of 0 meant the participants never engaged in these behaviors, while a score of 4 meant subjects frequently displayed such behaviors.
In addition, the team took mouth swabs of the subjects to measure their levels of cortisol - the "stress hormone" - in their saliva.
Equine therapy 'boosted mood and reduced negative behavior'
The researchers found that the individuals who took part in equine therapy scored an average of one point lower on the Modified Nursing Home Behavior Problem Scale, compared with those who continued with their usual activities.
The team noticed that for patients with less severe Alzheimer's, equine therapy led to an increase in cortisol levels. However, the researchers say this could be an increase in "good stress" as a result of being in a new environment.
They were surprised to find that some subjects who took part in equine therapy showed increased physical activity - some participants who rarely left their wheelchairs wanted to stand up and walk unassisted. This physical activity increased with every session.
In addition, the team found that some participants remembered the equine therapy session even after they went home, with a daughter of one participant commenting that her mother "would never remember what she did at the center during the day, but she always remembered what she did at the farm."
Overall, the researchers say they saw clear signs that participants enjoyed the equine therapy sessions and became engaged in the experience.
Commenting on the study findings, Dabelko-Schoeny adds:
"We wanted to test whether people with dementia could have positive interactions with horses, and we found that they can - absolutely. The experience immediately lifted their mood, and we saw a connection to fewer incidents of negative behavior."
Aside from interaction with the horses, the team notes that the peaceful countryside setting of the farm could have contributed to the positive results seen.
"They found the quietness and smells of the country very relaxing and restful. This was in contrast to their normal day care environment and their intercity dwelling," says study co-author Gwendolen Lorch, assistant professor of veterinary clinical medicine at Ohio State.
"It is difficult to tell what factors made this successful, but we do know that it was most likely a combination of events."
Based on these findings, the researchers say that equine therapy is a "feasible and possibly beneficial" strategy for individuals with Alzheimer's disease or related dementia disorders.
They conclude that future research should investigate what specific activities in equine therapy are most beneficial.
It is not only interaction with horses that may be beneficial to health. Last year, Medical News Today reported on a study from the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), which suggested having a dog in the house may protect children against asthma and allergies.
Another study details how dogs are able to sniff out ovarian cancer, while other research suggests that dogs can detect when a person's blood sugar levels are too high or low.
Cats have also made their contribution to the medical world. A 2013 study from the University of Florida and UCSF suggests that cats may be the key to an HIV vaccine, after discovering that blood from patients infected with HIV shows an immune response against a feline AIDS virus protein.