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May 07, 2014 08:44 AM EDT

Horses help reduce the symptoms of Alzheimer's dementia, according to a Ohio State University study. Researchers said that equine therapy that is commonly used for children and teens with emotional and developmental disorders is found to be beneficial for adults too.

According to the National Institute on Aging, Alzheimer's disease leads to memory loss and personality changes (depressed, withdrawn and aggressive) and currently affects 5.1 million Americans.

"We wanted to test whether people with dementia could have positive interactions with horses, and we found that they can-absolutely," Holly Dabelko-Schoeny, associate professor of social work said in a press release. "The experience immediately lifted their mood, and we saw a connection to fewer incidents of negative behavior."

For the study, the researchers observed nine women and seven men with Alzheimer's while they fed and groomed the horses. The participants were also asked to take the animal for a walk. Once a week for a month, eight of the participants stayed behind at the center while the other eight visited the Field of Dreams Equine Education Center in Blacklick, Ohio and vice versa.

The participants were found enjoying their time on the farm - smiling, laughing, talking with the horses. Introvert participants appeared a lot more cheerful and interactive than usual.

The researchers then used the Modified Nursing Home Behavior Problem Scale to measure participants' behavior (fidgetiness, resistance, disturbance and temperament) on days they remained at the center and when they travelled to the farm. The participants fared well on the days they went to the farm.

The equine therapy also increased physical activity in participants who had physical restrictions. Participants bound to wheelchair asked for help to stand up and approach the horses and others who were physically inactive voluntarily stood up and walked unattended. With each visit to the farm, participants grew physically more active.

Interaction with horses also seemed to boost their memory. The daughter of one of the participants said, "....mother never remembered what she did at the center during the day, but she always remembered what she did at the farm."

Gwendolen Lorch, assistant professor of veterinary clinical medicine and co-author of the study, said that the countryside location rendered the therapy more efficient.

"I think another positive influence for these clients was the environment. 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," Lorch said. "It is difficult to tell what factors made this successful, but we do know that it was most likely a combination of events."

The finding is published in the journal Anthrozoös.

Follows horses, symptoms, dementia, drugs, alzheimer's, ohio, equine
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