Researchers at Utah State University have discovered that the progression of decline in brain functioning among Alzheimer's patients may be dramatically slowed if caregivers simply change the patient's environment.
More specifically, caregivers who utilize higher levels of "positive" coping strategies -- problem-focused coping, seeking greater social support, counting blessings -- were able to slow down dementia's progress as measured by a variety of global standards. Historically, patients whose caregivers rely more on "negative" coping strategies -- avoidance, blaming themselves or others, wishful thinking -- resulted in a faster decline on cognitive and functional measures, researchers said.
Problem-focused coping targets the cause of a problem in a practical way, such as by gathering information and taking control of a situation, they said. For example, one might evaluate the pros and cons of various options for dealing with a stressful issue.
"This study is a groundbreaking event in the fight against dementia, including Alzheimer's, which has been so pervasively devastating for individuals and families, especially given the limited treatment options for patients and their families," said Dr. JoAnn Tschanz, professor at USU and the study's lead author. "Except for psychiatric symptoms, few studies have examined how caregiver characteristics affect the rate of dementia progression, and our findings indicate significant associations between caregiver coping strategies and the rate of cognitive and functional decline in dementia."
She said the Cache County Dementia Progression Study is the first published academic research to show evidence that environmental factors could slow the progression of Alzheimer's disease, offering hope for those trying to mitigate the effects of the disease.
Alzheimer's is the most common form of dementia, affecting one in eight older Americans. A degenerative disorder of the brain, Alzheimer's is the only disease among the top 10 causes of death nationally that, to date, cannot be prevented, cured or even slowed.
Tschanz told Huff/Post50 that caregivers should employ a problem-solving approach to caregiving. "Examples of this may include finding a stimulating activity to engage the care recipient, or ensuring appropriate medical follow-up for changes in symptoms," she said. "Future studies can build on our findings to develop new treatment options focusing on caregiver and other environmental factors."
Conducted in Cache County, Utah, by a team of USU researchers along with fellow researchers from Johns Hopkins University, the study assessed 226 persons with dementia and their caregivers semi-annually for up to six years.
"Greater use of problem-focused coping may be mutually beneficial for both patients and caregivers," Tschanz said. "Use of this coping strategy may translate into developing a care environment that is tailored to individual patient needs. Furthermore, other research suggests problem-focused coping has been associated with less emotional distress among caregivers. Such strategies may help caregivers cope with the stress of dementia caregiving while curbing the progression of dementia in their patients."
The study, entitled "Caregiver Coping Strategies Predict Cognitive and Functional Decline in Dementia: The Cache County Dementia Progression Study," was published in the January 2013 issue of The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.
The study was funded by the National Institute on Aging.
In December 2012, Utah State researchers also were instrumental in another Alzheimer's-related breakthrough, contributing to an analysis of genetic markers for rare mutations that led to a greater understanding of how the disease develops.