Study: Alzheimer’s Disease is Slowed by Close Relationships

Having a spouse or close child take care of a person with Alzheimer’s disease keeps the dementia sufferer’s mind sharp for a longer period of time, new research shows.

August 10, 2009

Symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease are delayed when the caretaker is someone close to the patient.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Watching a loved one succumb to Alzheimer’s disease and memory loss is difficult and painful. But for Alzheimer’s patients, having loved ones take care of them may actually delay the progression of their disease, according to a new study published in the Journal of Gerontology.

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THE DETAILS: Researchers selected 167 people with possible or probable Alzheimer’s disease from an ongoing research program studying the progression of dementia. Those individuals were all in the care of either a spouse (43 percent) or their adult children (57 percent). The study authors visited each person every six months for one to three years, and used questionnaires to measure the closeness of their relationship with their caregivers. They also monitored the progression of their symptoms with diagnostic tests. The slowest progression of symptoms was seen in patients whose caregivers were considered very close, and who were under the care of a spouse. People with spouse caregivers had slower declines in both cognitive and functional behaviors than people under the care of adult children, but whether under the care of a child or spouse, the closer the relationship, the slower the progression of symptoms.

WHAT IT MEANS: “Relationships between spouses and children require mental activity and attention,” says Eric J. Hall, president and CEO of the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America. That kind of social contact is a critical component in managing Alzheimer’s disease, he adds. This research adds to the evidence that maintaining the social and cognitive activities that these relationships inspire is an effective way to stave off progression of the disease.

However, caring for a spouse or parent can be one of the most stressful duties of a person’s life, and can take a toll on both the caregiver as well as the patient. “It’s a 24/7 job,” says Hall. “As spouses and children, nothing in our minds has properly prepared us for caring for an Alzheimer’s patient,” he notes. While previous research has found that caregivers with close relationships can delay admission to nursing homes and other care facilities, other studies have found that caregivers who are stressed out may accelerate the decline of Alzheimer’s patients, and lead to an increased need for psychiatric medications. So it’s important for both parties’ sake that the caregiver have the support and resources he or she needs.

If you’re caring for a loved one who has Alzheimer’s disease, here are four helpful guidelines to follow:

• Educate yourself. Most of the stress caregivers experience comes from a lack of understanding and knowledge about the disease, says Hall. Knowing what the disease is doing to a person’s brain, and what options are available for dealing with the symptoms, empowers caregivers to do more, he adds. Knowledge also helps you cope emotionally. “The more we understand about the disease, the easier it is to accept that your loved one’s behavior is a direct consequence of what’s happening in their brain,” Hall says.

• Talk to them. “One thing we often tell families is, don’t sit them in front of the TV set and leave them for hours on end,” says Hall. Communicating and interacting with people involves certain parts of the brain that become inactive in front of the TV set. Depending on the degree of impairment, your charge may also be able to visit community centers or friends and remain socially active, provided you make it part of a daily routine. Change can be difficult for people with Alzheimer’s disease, so sticking to a set schedule will be less frustrating for you both.

• Join a support group. “A lot of Americans have a hard time sitting around talking about our woes,” says Hall, “but there’s an enormous benefit to participating in support groups.” Knowing that you’re not alone in coping with a parent or spouse with Alzheimer’s disease helps alleviate some of the isolation you may feel, he says, especially if you’re an only child or a spouse with few living relatives to help out. If you can’t find a support group whose meetings fit in with your schedule, Hall suggests contacting a social worker, or calling the Alzheimer’s Foundation hotline with questions. Find support groups at the foundation’s hotline number at www.alzfdn.org.”

• Give yourself some space. In a survey conducted by the Alzheimer’s Foundation in 2006, 76 percent of caregivers were stressed out by the day-to-day requirements of dealing with a sick adult. “The only way to minimize that stress is to give yourself some space,” says Hall. He suggests hiring a nurse or other professional to come in for as little as two hours a week, so you can run errands or just engage in some stress-reducing activities like yoga or golf. “Caregivers are willing to go to any length possible out of love and devotion for their significant other,” he says. “However, caregivers need to realize that this can definitely end up hurting you, if you become sick. Taking care of yourself is a critical piece of this equation.”