As the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease accompanies our expanded life expectancy, spouses of people with Alzheimer’s disease are usually older adults.
While the individuals who take on a caregiver role tend to be healthier than those who do not, caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease is difficult in the best of circumstances, and can take a toll on a person’s health.
Counseling and support for people caring for a spouse with Alzheimer’s disease helps to preserve their health, according to a new study led by Mary S. Mittelman, at New York University School of Medicine.
The study is published in the September 2007 issue of the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.
Caregivers in the study who received an intervention developed at NYU Medical Center by Dr. Mittelman and her colleagues reported less of a decline in their physical health than those receiving usual care.
“Preserving the health of spouse caregivers through counseling and support also benefits the person with Alzheimer’s disease, as caregivers who are in poor health are more likely to have difficulty providing good care,” said Dr. Mittelman.
The study is the latest result from ongoing research conducted over the past 20 years by Dr. Mittelman. It is the longest research study ever devoted to testing an intervention to improve the well-being of Alzheimer’s caregivers.
The study, which began in 1987, involved 406 spouse caregivers of people with Alzheimer’s disease who were divided equally into two groups.
The first group received enhanced counseling and support, including six sessions of individual and family counseling, support groups, and telephone counseling for the caregiver and family members as needed.
The second group had usual care, which meant that they received information and help upon request, but didn’t participate in formal counseling sessions.
Previous results from this study have shown that caregiver spouses who received the enhanced counseling and support delayed placing their ailing spouse in a nursing home by 1½ years compared to caregiver spouses who received usual care.
Dr. Mittelman and her colleagues also found that counseling and support substantially eases the depression of spouse caregivers. The new results indicate that this intervention can also help maintain the physical health of caregivers.
In the new study, the researchers gauged caregivers’ self-reported health, an important predictor of physical illness, with questions that have been used widely in national surveys by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and internationally by the World Health Organization.
The intervention had a beneficial effect on self-rated health, which began within four months of enrollment, and lasted more than a year, according to the study.
“Individualized counseling programs that improve social support for caregivers can have many indirect benefits, including sustaining their physical health,” said Dr. Mittelman.