How Alzheimer's Affects Physical Ability and Functioning

Alzheimer’s disease is known for its effects on memory, word-finding, communication, and behavior. But what about a physical ability and functioning, such as walking? Or the use of the arms? Does Alzheimer’s affect the body as well as the brain?

Alzheimer's Can Affect Physical Abilities Such as Walking
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Early Stages

In the early stages of Alzheimer’s, physical ability remains largely intact. It’s not uncommon for people with early dementia to walk for more than a mile at a time and appear to have completely normal functioning. It’s often difficult to tell that someone has early stage dementia just by looking at them. In fact, it may appear there is nothing wrong with them.

Middle Stages

As Alzheimer’s progresses into the middle stages, the physical ability of people begins to decline. The brain forgets how to make the muscles work to walk, and feeding oneself becomes more difficult. The phrase “Use it or lose it” in terms of muscle ability applies here. The physical ability to hold urine and bowel movements declines, as does the mental ability to interpret the body’s signals.

Late Stages

In the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease, physical ability is significantly compromised. Walking and range of motion are severely limited. Most people in this stage of dementia need to be fed by someone else and some develop difficulty with swallowing and choking. Contractures, where a leg, arm or hand is bent too far and is difficult to straighten out, can develop because the person doesn’t use the muscle enough. Eventually, loved ones are faced with end-of-life decisions.

What Caregivers Can Do to Help

There’s no cure for Alzheimer’s yet, but there are a few things family and caregivers can do to increase the quality of life for a person with dementia as it related to their physical abilities.

  • Physical Activity: Encourage the person to continue exercising such as going for walks, stretching their limbs, and being as independent as possible with other activities of daily living.
  • Physical and Occupational Therapy: If you notice a decline in the ability to walk or get dressed, or in your loved one's balance, consider arranging for some physical or occupational therapy. These therapists can help build up strength, reinforce self-care in the early and middle stages and work to prevent falls by improving balance. They can also do a home visit to identify safety hazards in the home.
  • Passive Range of Motion: In the later stages of Alzheimer's, your loved one might benefit from gentle range of motion exercises. These exercises are usually accomplished by the caregiver carefully (and as taught by a physical or occupational therapist) moving the arms, wrists, hands, legs, and feet to stretch them so that they are less likely to develop painful contractures.
  • Good Nutrition: As is the case with most conditions, adequate nutrition can help maintain physical functioning. Sometimes, difficulties in eating and drinking can make nutrition a challenge in dementia.
  • Skin Care: Because physical movement is limited in the later stages of dementia, take precautions to prevent skin breakdown as well.
3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Alzheimer's Association. Stages of Alzheimer's.

  2. UT Southwestern. Are joint contractures in patients with alzheimer's disease preventable?

  3. Alzheimer's Association. Daily Care.

Additional Reading
  • Alzheimer's Association. Late Stage Caregiving.
  • Alzheimer's Association. Seven Stages of Alzheimer's.

By Esther Heerema, MSW
Esther Heerema, MSW, shares practical tips gained from working with hundreds of people whose lives are touched by Alzheimer's disease and other kinds of dementia.