Study: Horses help ease Alzheimer’s symptoms

There is something about being around an animal that tends to relax people and make them feel happier. It is a theory that has been tested, and proven multiple times, but while most studies have looked at how companion animals such as dogs, cats and even fish can improve your health and lifestyle, there is a new study from The Ohio State University (OSU) that looks at horses and their health effects on humans.

The study looks at how horses may help those with dementia from Alzheimer’s — bringing a sense of relief and an ease in symptoms.

Nine women and seven men from an adult daycare center in Columbus, Ohio volunteered for the pilot study, breaking from their routine once per week to visit the Field of Dreams Equine Education Center in Blacklick, Ohio. Only eight participants per week went to the equine center, each participant visiting a total of four times. During their visit, they groomed, bathed, walked and fed the horses under the supervision of caretakers.

The experiment was to find a way to ease dementia symptoms without drugs, said Holly Dabelko-Schoeny, associate professor of social work at Ohio State, in an article for Science Daily.

“We wanted to test whether people with dementia could have positive interactions with horses, and we found that they can — absolutely,” she continued. “The experience immediately lifted their mood, and we saw a connection to fewer incidents of negative behavior.”

There was more evidence with further testing.

The patients were graded on a scale of zero to four for their dementia-related behavior on the days they either went to the farm or stayed in the center. A score of zero meant that the patient never engaged in problematic behavior; a four meant that they always engaged in such behaviors.

Horses can be used in animal-assisted therapy, which has shown to help reduce stress levels in children and teens.

According to Science Daily, those who visited the farm scored one point lower than their peers on average.

Further testing through mouth swabs of saliva found that patients with less-severe dementia had a rise in cortisol levels due to the “good stress” of being around the horses.

Additionally, physical activity was increased, even in those that rarely wanted to stand or walk around. With each visit, the patients became more and more physically active.

Cats and dogs are usually favored for animal therapy; one of the key reasons why is that they are easily transported from one location to another. And while horses could be brought to adult daycare centers, Gwendolen Lorch, assistant professor of veterinary clinical medicine at OSU and co-author of the study, said that having patients go to the farm might be the most effective form of therapy.

“I think another positive influence for these clients was the environment. They found the quietness and smells of the country very relaxing and restful,” Lorch said.

The study is now over, but some of the patients’ families have elected to continue visiting the farm.

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