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Staying Social Vital for People With Alzheimer's, Caregivers
  • Posted March 19, 2024

Staying Social Vital for People With Alzheimer's, Caregivers

People with dementia -- and their caregivers -- need active social lives to stay healthy, a new study reports.

However, researchers found that both dementia patients and their caregivers had declining social connections as the disease progressed.

Patients' social networks faltered, as failing memory made conversation difficult, causing family and friends to become uncomfortable in their presence, researchers said.

And their caregivers -- spouses, adult children and others -- became isolated as their responsibilities to the patient mounted.

None of that was healthy for patients or caregivers.

“Unmet social needs negatively impact quality of life, and that can lead to health outcomes like depression and cardiovascular disease, as well as high health-care use and early death,” explained lead researcher Dr. Ashwin Kotwal, an assistant professor of medicine in the University of California, San Francisco's Division of Geriatrics.

 “We know from previous research that older adults with higher levels of social isolation have more than double the odds of nursing home placement,” Kotwal added in a university news release.

For the study, researchers analyzed the cases of two dozen mainly male patients with dementia and four dozen mainly female caregivers. The average age of patients was 80, and the average age of caregivers was 67.

Results indicate that both patients and caregivers should be regularly screened for loneliness and isolation, so doctors can find ways to keep them socially connected, researchers said.

The new study was published March 18 in The Gerontologist.

People can and should seek out options for mingling with others, the researchers said.

“Participating in support groups, in which patients and their caregivers can meet separately, may be low-stress places to socialize and get advice,” advised senior researcher Krista Harrison, a geriatrician with the UCSF Global Brain Health initiative.

“Clinicians should discuss options like community choirs that have been tailored for patients with dementia and their caregivers,” she added.

“Prior research shows that meaningful activities can be enjoyed as the disease progresses,” Harrison said. “There may be simple ways of adapting activities, like switching attendance from a place of worship to participating in a service by Zoom with a small gathering at home.”

The study jibes with a recent UCSF-led study of married couples in which one partner had dementia, researchers said.

In that study, researchers found that people very close to a partner with dementia experienced more loneliness than they did prior to the disease's onset.

On the other hand, those in a bad marriage weren't impacted by their partner's dementia, although they had higher rates of depression and loneliness overall.

“People who are really invested in their marriage or partnership have more to lose when one partner develops dementia,” Kotwal explained. “But those with lower marital quality have already lost the emotional support from the marriage that can be protective against loneliness and depression.”

More information

The Alzheimer's Association has more on staying mentally and socially active.

SOURCE: University of California, San Francisco, news release, March 18, 2024

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