Alzheimer's patients who have a close relationship with their caregivers show a slower decline in their mental and physical function over time, new research hints.
In fact, the effect of having a close relationship with one's caregiver approached the impact of taking medications that can slow the progression of the disease, Dr. Maria Norton of Utah State University in Salt Lake City and her colleagues found.
The researchers have been following more than 5,000 people since 1994 to investigate risk factors for dementia in the Cache County Memory Study. All study participants were 65 or older at the study's outset.
They zeroed in on a subset of 167 people who had developed dementia and followed them for about 20 months, on average. All were being cared for by a spouse or an adult child.
The researchers determined caregiver-patient closeness by presenting the caregivers with a series of statements about their relationship with the patient.
Overall, Norton and her colleagues found, the patients with spouse caregivers showed slower physical and mental decline than those being cared for by adult children. And the closer the relationship was, the slower the decline.
People may be more willing to care for a husband or wife than for a parent, Norton noted, given that they've already agreed to stick by them in sickness and in health. "They've already kind of made that lifelong commitment."
Caregivers who feel closer to their charge may also be more likely to spend time engaging with them and making them feel "important and loved," rather than parking the person in front of the TV, Norton pointed out.
Evidence is mounting that people's brains stay healthier if they are more socially and cognitively active, she noted. The more loving caregivers "might possibly be engaging the person with Alzheimer's disease in socially and cognitively stimulating activities that may in turn keep the brain active and slow the rate of cognitive decline," she said.
The current findings also suggest, she added, that taking steps to strengthen the relationships between Alzheimer's patients and their caregivers could be helpful.