Patients with dementia die earlier if caregivers are mentally stressed, study shows

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A recent study by campus researchers revealed that patients with dementia are prone to earlier death if their family caregivers are mentally stressed, according to a campus press release.

Caregivers were examined for their emotional and social functioning and for their overall health while patients were monitored for disease severity and treatment plans updates. Study subjects were assessed both at the UCSF Memory and Aging Center and Berkeley Psychophysiology Laboratory.

The five-year study tracked 176 patients — all of whom had neurodegenerative diseases. Along with these patients’ mortality, the researchers measured the mental health of the family members who took care of the patients.

Robert Levenson, senior author of the study and campus psychology professor, said in the press release that the study emphasizes how both the caregiver and the patient can influence the other’s state mentally and physically.

“Overall, we wanted to understand more about the interconnected lives of familial caregivers and their patients,” Brett Ford, study co-author and assistant professor of psychology at University of Toronto said. “These findings suggest that caring for caregivers may also be important in improving the lives, and longevity, of patients.”

The study found that a caregiver’s mental health was a significant predictor for a patient’s lifespan even accounting for variables such as diagnosis, sex, age, dementia severity, mental health and the caregiver’s physical health.

Poor mental health of a caregiver can greatly affect the patient’s life through a variety of factors. It could lead to the reduction of quality care they provide, neglect and abuse or the weakening of the relationship between both parties — all of which could lead to poorer physical health through impaired immune functioning or behavioral mimicry of negative emotion.

To assess triggers for the caregivers’ worsening of mental health, researchers focused on factors such as “burden and stresses” that caregivers underwent. The increased risk of poor mental health in the caregivers can ultimately create a chain of events affecting the patient’s mortality.

Campus psychology professor, Stephen Hinshaw, expressed in an email appreciation toward the contributions of caregivers, because caregivers are the “go-to individuals” in many cases of both neurological diseases of aging and severe mental illnesses. He added that they “keep the ill relative going” and are often “bearing the brunt of the care without adequate support or preparation.”

In addition, caregivers sometimes incur stigma, he said, simply by being close to a patient with an incapacitating condition.

“Thus, it’s little wonder that high stress levels have spillover effects for the whole family — even, at the extreme, in terms of longevity for the ill relative,” Hinshaw said in an email.

Contact Robin Hyun at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @robinnhyun.