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Utah researchers find caregivers' attitudes critical in Alzheimer's disease progression

Published: Saturday, Jan. 19 2013 11:43 p.m. MST

She said data suggest community support agencies are not utilized as much as they could be, and that getting people in touch with such options would be beneficial, as the organizations can help with some of the problem-solving.

Tschanz's research stems from the Cache County Study on Memory Health and Aging, in which more than 5,000 county residents have been tracked for than a decade. Her current work, which is funded by the National Institute on Aging, assessed 226 individuals who had developed dementia during the study period and their caregivers.

"We found there is tremendous individual variability in how fast people decline," Tschanz said. "We want to know what impacts that decline in mental health."

The research, printed in January issue of The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, suggests a person's environment is a key factor in the degradation of the disease over time.

Overall health conditions, diet and nutrition, and basic demographics are environmental factors that can play a part in the outcomes of Alzheimer's disease, but so do a caregiver's coping mechanisms.

Positive coping strategies, Tschanz said, include problem-focused coping, seeking greater social support and counting blessings. Each helps to slow patient decline.

On the other hand, research found that caregivers who focused on negative coping strategies — such as avoidance, blaming themselves or others, and wishful thinking — resulted in more rapid decline in a patient's cognitive and functional measures, she said.

"If we could slow the progression of Alzheimer's and other dementias, there could be a huge cost savings, but there are also beneficial effects for loved ones," Tschanz said. "Caregiving in itself can be very stressful. It can take a toll on the caregiver's health. Being able to promote higher level of functioning over time would allow individuals to stay in their homes at lower costs to the family and the community."

The Romneys' children are quite supportive of their parents' plight and take turns hosting their mother in their homes, giving dad some time away from it all.

And the Romneys are very open about the situation.

Kathryn Romney, a former teacher of the year for the Salt Lake City School District, straightforwardly announced her condition from the pulpit at church, hoping to foster an open conversation with others about her disease.

"They all felt like they could talk to us. There was no need to whisper behind our backs," Leonard Romney said.

The candidness helps them both, as others provide much-needed support and occasional advice, something they have grown to depend upon.

"Many people would not be able to tell there are difficulties," he said. "It's just not possible for her to do all the things she used to do."

E-mail: wleonard@desnews.com, Twitter: wendyleonards

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