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Alzheimer's Caregivers May Be at Risk for Dementia

Stress and Shared Lifestyle May Raise Risk of Mental Decline for Spouses Who Are Also Caregivers

Taking Care of Caregivers

With such a complex interplay of physical and emotional factors at work, experts say that the interventions to protect caregivers from dementia need to be just as multifaceted.

"It's too simplistic to think that by telling someone to take care of themselves, they're going to do that," Eskenasi says. "In part because there are too many barriers involved."

The first problem, she says, is that many caregivers don't recognize themselves in that role.

"If your spouse has dementia, you don't say 'I'm a caregiver.' You say, 'I'm a wife,' or 'I'm a partner," she says.

But it's important for people to understand the unique demands of what they're doing so they can take time to protect themselves.

Vitaliano says one thing that has been shown to have significant impact on cognitive decline is exercise. Studies have found that moderate intensity aerobic exercise performed in midlife or later appears to reduce the risk of cognitive decline. For those who are already showing signs of dementia, one study found that a six-month program of high-intensity aerobic activity improved cognitive function.

"It's pretty demanding, in terms of the amount of physical activity that you have to do," he says, but it seems to help.

The other thing he recommends to his patients who are caregivers is taking time for "uplifts" or pleasant events, like golf, gardening, and movies. He recommends that caregivers stop and think about hobbies or friends that they may not have seen in a while and actually set aside time for them in a planned schedule.

"This pleasant event schedule makes tremendous common sense," Vitaliano says, "And it's the kind of stuff my grandmother would have said 'you needed to get a PhD to know that?' But it's incredible how people lose what's right in front of their face when they're facing adversity."

Other kinds of support need to come from the government and community, experts say, given that 14.9 million adults in the U. S. now take care of a loved one with Alzheimer's disease or dementia.

Doctors can help, Eskenazi says, just by taken a moment to switch focus.

"Caregiver health is hidden, and it really is because a doctor never asks, 'How are you?'" she says.

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