Cognitive stimulation to improve cognitive functioning in people with dementia

Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012 Feb 15:(2):CD005562. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD005562.pub2.


Background: Cognitive stimulation is an intervention for people with dementia which offers a range of enjoyable activities providing general stimulation for thinking, concentration and memory usually in a social setting, such as a small group. Its roots can be traced back to Reality Orientation (RO), which was developed in the late 1950s as a response to confusion and disorientation in older patients in hospital units in the USA. RO emphasised the engagement of nursing assistants in a hopeful, therapeutic process but became associated with a rigid, confrontational approach to people with dementia, leading to its use becoming less and less common.Cognitive stimulation is often discussed in normal ageing as well as in dementia. This reflects a general view that lack of cognitive activity hastens cognitive decline. With people with dementia, cognitive stimulation attempts to make use of the positive aspects of RO whilst ensuring that the stimulation is implemented in a sensitive, respectful and person-centred manner.There is often little consistency in the application and availability of psychological therapies in dementia services, so a systematic review of the available evidence regarding cognitive stimulation is important in order to identify its effectiveness and to place practice recommendations on a sound evidence base.

Objectives: To evaluate the effectiveness and impact of cognitive stimulation interventions aimed at improving cognition for people with dementia, including any negative effects.

Search methods: The trials were identified from a search of the Cochrane Dementia and Cognitive Improvement Group Specialized Register, called ALOIS (updated 6 December 2011). The search terms used were: cognitive stimulation, reality orientation, memory therapy, memory groups, memory support, memory stimulation, global stimulation, cognitive psychostimulation. Supplementary searches were performed in a number of major healthcare databases and trial registers to ensure that the search was up to date and comprehensive.

Selection criteria: All randomised controlled trials (RCTs) of cognitive stimulation for dementia which incorporated a measure of cognitive change were included.

Data collection and analysis: Data were extracted independently by two review authors using a previously tested data extraction form. Study authors were contacted for data not provided in the papers. Two review authors conducted independent assessments of the risk of bias in included studies.

Main results: Fifteen RCTs were included in the review. Six of these had been included in the previous review of RO. The studies included participants from a variety of settings, interventions that were of varying duration and intensity, and were from several different countries. The quality of the studies was generally low by current standards but most had taken steps to ensure assessors were blind to treatment allocation. Data were entered in the meta-analyses for 718 participants (407 receiving cognitive stimulation, 311 in control groups). The primary analysis was on changes that were evident immediately at the end of the treatment period. A few studies provided data allowing evaluation of whether any effects were subsequently maintained. A clear, consistent benefit on cognitive function was associated with cognitive stimulation (standardised mean difference (SMD) 0.41, 95% CI 0.25 to 0.57). This remained evident at follow-up one to three months after the end of treatment. In secondary analyses with smaller total sample sizes, benefits were also noted on self-reported quality of life and well-being (standardised mean difference: 0.38 [95% CI: 0.11, 0.65]); and on staff ratings of communication and social interaction (SMD 0.44, 95% CI 0.17 to 0.71). No differences in relation to mood (self-report or staff-rated), activities of daily living, general behavioural function or problem behaviour were noted. In the few studies reporting family caregiver outcomes, no differences were noted. Importantly, there was no indication of increased strain on family caregivers in the one study where they were trained to deliver the intervention.

Authors' conclusions: There was consistent evidence from multiple trials that cognitive stimulation programmes benefit cognition in people with mild to moderate dementia over and above any medication effects. However, the trials were of variable quality with small sample sizes and only limited details of the randomisation method were apparent in a number of the trials. Other outcomes need more exploration but improvements in self-reported quality of life and well-being were promising. Further research should look into the potential benefits of longer term cognitive stimulation programmes and their clinical significance.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Dementia / therapy*
  • Humans
  • Memory / physiology
  • Orientation / physiology*
  • Psychotherapy / methods*
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic