Active social lives help dementia patients, caregivers thrive

March 24, 2024

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Active social lives help dementia patients, caregivers thrive

People with dementia and those who care for them should be screened for loneliness, so providers can find ways to keep them socially connected, according to experts who made the recommendations after finding that both groups experienced declines in social well-being as the disease progressed.  

The patients, whose average age in the study was 80, had lost their social networks as their failing memories made conversation difficult, and their family and friends grew uncomfortable. Caregivers, whose average age was 67 and included spouses, adult children and others, became isolated as their responsibilities mounted. They also grieved the loss of their relationships with the patients when those relationships were good.  

What the researchers say: “Unmetsocial needs negatively impact quality of life, and that can lead to healthoutcomes like depression and cardiovascular disease, as well as highhealth-care use and early death,” said the first author of the study.  “We know from previous research that olderadults with higher levels of social isolation have more than double the odds ofnursing home placement.”

The study, which appears in The Gerontologist included information from mainly male patients with dementia, and mainly female caregivers, some of whom were recently bereaved.

“Participating in support groups, in which patients and their caregivers can meet separately, may be low-stress places to socialize and get advice,” said the study’s senior author, noting that screenings take minutes and can be done by doctors, social workers or therapists.

“Clinicians should discuss options like community choirs that have been tailored for patients with dementia and their caregivers,” she said. “Prior research shows that meaningful activities can be enjoyed as the disease progresses. 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.”

A recent study of married couples, in which one partner had dementia, offered a fresh twist to the current study. The researchers found partners of people with dementia who were highly satisfied with their relationships experienced more loneliness than they had previously. But those in poor-quality relationships were not impacted by their partner’s dementia, despite having 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,” the researchers noted. “But those with lower marital quality have already lost the emotional support from the marriage that can be protective against loneliness and depression.”

So, what? In my study of hunter-gatherer bands, and in every other study that I’ve read there is no evidence of dementia among them. And it’s not as if they die young, without time for the illness to be noticed—their average longevity is equal to ours today, and much longer than people have historically lived in the 10,000 years since the introduction of farming.

Their secrets, I believe, are three-fold. Firstly, their lifestyle is much closer to the kind of lifestyle that’s in tune with our genetics therefore it creates less stress. Many previous studies (some quite recent which have been reported in TR) have indicated that stress—perhaps beginning prenatally—maybe one of the contributing causes of dementia.

Another difference is in the structure of the H-G band when compared to modern societies. Within the band there was constant socializing, loneliness—even after the death of a spouse—was unknown. The more recent isolated nuclear family was an unknown concept to H-Gs.

Finally, a number of recent studies (again reported in TR) have linked long-lasting and treatment-resistant depression and dementia. No studies of H-G societies have found these kinds of depression in them.

Dementia, therefore, may be a result of the way we live and how that lifestyle interacts with a number of genes which make us prone to the illness.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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