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Older Caregivers Face Increased Risk Of Cognitive Problems Due To Stress And Shared Lifestyle

a disabled person in a wheelchairAn older individual who cares for a spouse with dementia may be at an increased risk of developing cognitive problems because of the lifestyle that was shared with the spouse and because of the stress of caring for a loved one who is ill. These findings, which are published today in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, indicate that efforts are needed to help caregivers maintain their cognitive and functional health and their ability to care for those who need them. Included in the report is a link to Strength For Caregivers – a website dedicated to helping those who help their family.

Research indicates that, compared with non-caregivers, caregivers often have trouble with cognition, which involves attention and memory. To examine the issue more thoroughly, investigators reviewed the medical literature for studies that looked at the cognitive health of older adults caring for a family member (primarily a spouse) with dementia.

The review revealed that spouses who are caregivers may have a higher risk of cognitive impairment or dementia than spouses who are not caregivers. Their cognitive decline may be due to psychosocial factors such as depression, loneliness, social isolation, and sleep problems; behavioral factors, such as exercise and diet; and physiological factors such as obesity, chronically elevated insulin, and inflammation.

“Persons who are caring for a spouse with dementia may themselves be at risk for cognitive problems which, in turn, will not only negatively influence their quality of life, but may reduce their ability to provide the necessary care for their spouse,” said principal investigator Dr. Peter Vitaliano of the University of Washington School of Medicine. “Spouse caregivers are extremely important because most care-recipients prefer to be cared for in their homes, and, by remaining in their homes, health care costs are reduced greatly.”

The review argues for interventions that integrate strategies to reduce psychological distress in caregivers while promoting healthy behaviors, such as good diet and exercise. The authors note that community-level approaches may increase awareness and motivation. They point to Strength for Caring, an online resource for family caregivers that provides information, support, and ways to connect with other caregivers.

Material adapted from Wiley-Blackwell.

Peter P. Vitaliano, Michael Murphy, Heather M. Young, Diana Echeverria and Soo Borson; Does Caring for a Spouse with Dementia Promote Cognitive Decline? A Hypothesis and Proposed Mechanisms. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 2011; DOI: 10.1111/j.1532-5415.2011.03368.x

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