From Seder to Yoga, a Jewish Approach to Treating Alzheimer’s Disease

Being Physically and Spiritually Active Can Help

Escaping the Narrowness: New research suggests that mental stimulation and physical activity, such as yoga, can work as preventative measures against Alzheimer’s, the most common cause 
of dementia.
Kenny Suleimanagich
Escaping the Narrowness: New research suggests that mental stimulation and physical activity, such as yoga, can work as preventative measures against Alzheimer’s, the most common cause of dementia.

By Kenny Suleimanagich

Published August 10, 2014, issue of August 15, 2014.

(page 2 of 2)

Robin Dessel, the Hebrew Home’s Alzheimer’s educator, warns, “There are so many anomalies, so many covariants in the genetic mapping. I would not hang my hat solely on the issue of genetics.” Favoring a recent trend that points to physical activity as key in fighting the disease, Dessel’s approach at the Hebrew Home has been to usher in a comprehensive exercise-based therapy program.

Physical activity as a preventative measure for Alzheimer’s has in recent years been touted by the medical community, in addition to being embraced by the Hebrew Home. Some innovations Dessel and her team have introduced include sitting-yoga, breathing exercises, and chants. As recently as April, the medical journal Frontiers published a study that found a slowed decline in size of the hippocampus among physically active adults at genetic risk of the disease. A similar study published in the January 2011 issue of NeuroImage found that physical activity increased some brain activation related to memory in elders at risk of Alzheimer’s.

Alzheimer’s results from the blockage of neurological pathways. According to a 2012 report by the Cochrane Library in the United Kingdom, mental stimulation plays a crucial role in keeping pathways blocked by Alzheimer’s intact, while opening new ones. Achieving this requires innovation — whether that means introducing yoga classes, or rethinking Jewish holidays.

During High Holidays and Passover, special services are conducted specifically for residents of the Hebrew Home with Alzheimer’s or dementia and their families. Rabbi Simon Hirschhorn has led Seders there for patients and families for over a decade. “Our Seders are shorter and sweeter,” he says. “It’s not about what I do, it’s about how it’s done.”

Seders that Hirschhorn has conducted focus on staples like breaking the matzo, drinking wine, and making blessings which serve to bridge the divide between the residents and their families. He notes that several hurdles exist. “The residents often cannot sit through services [and] cannot hold decorum,” resulting in embarrassment from the family side, notes Hirschhorn.

“We use whatever modality there is to connect people to the content of the service, the prayers, the music,” he explains. Hirschhorn proudly recounts times that residents with more extreme cases of dementia have cognitively and emotionally “opened up” during these Seders in ways their families had not seen in many years. Alzheimer’s, he says, is a disease of “narrowness,” where both patients and helpless-feeling family members are stuck in their respective worlds and struggle to understand each other’s perspective. “What’s most important is to find your way out of that narrowness.”

Kenny Suleimanagich is a multimedia journalist based in New York City. His work has appeared in sites like Mashable and Medium. Follow him on Twitter @kennysule



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