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Rocking chairs calm dementia sufferers

At Kirkhaven nursing home, 79-year-old Mary Hall relaxes for long periods in a rocking chair, the agitation caused by her Alzheimer's disease soothed as she rocks.

"When she's sitting in that chair, she's usually got a little smile on her face. She's happy," said the retired school librarian's son, Douglas. "Before, she'd be prone in her bed all the time, making moaning noises."

A two-year study at Kirkhaven found that rocking brings some peace of mind to elderly people with dementia and turns out to be good medicine.

The repetitive movement appears to ease anxiety and lift depression, the study found. And daily rocking can improve balance and lessen the need for pain medication, said Nancy Watson, a geriatric nursing researcher at the University of Rochester who led the study.

"You could see immediately by their faces that they were enjoying themselves," she said. "That in itself has really great value for this population, where a lot of their experience of the quality of life is what's in the moment."

And the benefits seem to be cumulative.

"The more they rocked, the better they felt," Watson said.

More than half of the 1.6-million people in nursing homes in the United States suffer dementia.

Watson speculated that prolonged rocking releases pain-relieving chemicals in the brain called endorphins. Other studies have associated endorphin release with rhythmic exercise.