How Executive Functioning Is Affected by Dementia

Executive functioning involves the ability to organize, plan and carry out a set of tasks in an efficient manner. It also includes the ability to self-monitor and control our behaviors and multiple other cognitive functions and to perform goal-directed behavior. It can be described as high level thinking skills that control and direct lower levels of cognitive functioning.

Interestingly, although memory impairment often goes along with executive impairment, a person can show no memory problems but still be impaired in decision-making and executive functioning.

On a practical level, impairments in executive functioning have been associated with impairments in activities of daily living which include getting dressed, the ability to feed oneself, bathe oneself and more.

Executive functioning ability has been strongly connected to working memory ability.

Man with grey beard using frying pan in modern kitchen
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Alzheimer's Disease

In people with Alzheimer's disease, executive functioning is significantly impacted, and more so as the disease progresses. Some of the challenging behaviors that often accompany Alzheimer's and other types of dementia may be related to problems in executive functioning.

Other Types of Dementia

One study involved 76 people with Alzheimer's disease and 46 people with vascular dementia and found similar levels of executive functioning impairments in both groups of people. However, another study found that memory is typically more impaired earlier in Alzheimer's disease while executive functioning is usually more impaired in vascular dementia.

When comparing the executive functioning in people with Alzheimer's disease to that of those with frontotemporal dementia, those with frontotemporal dementia will usually display a greater impairment in executive functioning, and will do so earlier in the disease process.

Another study compared the executive functioning in people with frontotemporal dementia and Lewy body dementia and found similar levels of executive dysfunction in both disorders.

How Executive Functioning Is Assessed

There are several tests that help assess executive functioning. They include the clock-drawing test, the Stroop test, the verbal fluency test, the Wisconsin card-sorting test, and the executive interview, among others.

Examples of Executive Dysfunction in Dementia

Be aware that multi-step processes such as cooking and driving carry the possibility of danger when executive functioning is impaired, so take precautions in those areas, whether that's disconnecting the stove or talking to your loved one about quitting driving.

Other examples of impaired executive functioning in dementia include poor judgment, disorganization, socially inappropriate behavior, difficulty making plans for an event later in the day, and an inability to understand how their behavior or choices affect those around them. Executive functioning impairments may make it seem like the person is behaving selfishly, especially if their memory is still quite intact.

Can You Improve Executive Functioning in Dementia?

Some studies suggest that physical exercise can help improve executive functioning in people with dementia. For example, one study found that people with Alzheimer's disease experienced less decline in their executive functioning when they had higher rates of physical activity.

Other studies have demonstrated that certain diets, such as the MIND diet or the Mediterranean diet, have the potential to slow cognitive decline in those who have dementia, and this benefit may extend to executive functioning, as well as memory.

A Word From Verywell

An impairment in executive functioning can be frustrating at times, both for the person experiencing it as well as for her loved ones, but if you're able to respond and interact positively, it will help both of you. Also, reminding yourself that this challenge is due to dementia and is not a deliberate choice can also help reduce your potential to respond emotionally instead of with a deep breath and patience.

5 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. Mcguinness B, Barrett SL, Craig D, Lawson J, Passmore AP. Executive functioning in Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia. Int J Geriatr Psychiatry. 2010;25(6):562-8. doi:10.1002/gps.2375

  2. O'connor CM, Clemson L, Hornberger M, et al. Longitudinal change in everyday function and behavioral symptoms in frontotemporal dementia. Neurol Clin Pract. 2016;6(5):419-428. doi:10.1212/CPJ.0000000000000264

  3. Johns EK, Phillips NA, Belleville S, et al. Executive functions in frontotemporal dementia and Lewy body dementia. Neuropsychology. 2009;23(6):765-77. doi:10.1037/a0016792

  4. Farina N, Tabet N, Rusted J. The relationship between habitual physical activity status and executive function in individuals with Alzheimer's disease: a longitudinal, cross-lagged panel analysis. Neuropsychol Dev Cogn B Aging Neuropsychol Cogn. 2016;23(2):234-52. doi:10.1080/13825585.2015.1080213

  5. Morris MC, Tangney CC, Wang Y, Sacks FM, Bennett DA, Aggarwal NT. MIND diet associated with reduced incidence of Alzheimer's disease. Alzheimers Dement. 2015;11(9):1007-14. doi:10.1016/j.jalz.2014.11.009

Additional Reading
  • Alzheimer's Association. Try This. Issue Number D3, Revised 2012. Brief Evaluation of Executive Dysfunction: An Essential Refinement in the Assessment of Cognitive Impairment.

  • International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.2010 Jun;25(6):562-8. Executive functioning in Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia.

  • Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology.2013;35(1):24-34. AD pathology and cerebral infarctions are associated with memory and executive functioning one and five years before death.

  • Neurology. 2013 Jun 11;80(24):2174-5. Executive functions can help when deciding on the frontotemporal dementia diagnosis.

  • Neuropsychology. 2009 Nov;23(6):765-77.Executive functions in frontotemporal dementia and Lewy body dementia.

  • Neuropsychology. 2010. March 24(2); 222-243. The Relationship Between Working Memory Capacity and Executive Functioning: Evidence for a Common Executive Attention Construct.

  • Neuropsychology Development and Cognition. Section B, Aging, Neuropsychology and Cognition. 2016 Mar;23(2):234-52. The relationship between habitual physical activity status and executive function in individuals with Alzheimer's disease: a longitudinal, cross-lagged panel analysis.

  • University of California, San Francisco. Executive Functions.

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.