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For Alzheimer's patients, connection with caregiver might rival drugs

July 23, 2009 |  4:25 pm

BeachThe goal of most Alzheimer's research is a drug that could stop the disease -- or prevent it or slow it or, frankly, do much at all. So researchers are furiously crafting new concoctions, retrying existing compounds in new ways and exploring new treatment targets all in their efforts to thwart the progressive, debilitating disease -- and yet their prize remains solidly out of reach for the immediate future. But what if simple, old-fashioned caregiving could slow the course of the disease? And what if it could do it just as well as some existing drugs?

It might.

New research indicates that a truly close relationship with a caregiver can give Alzheimer's patients an edge in retaining brain function over time. In a study of 167 pairs of caregivers and Alzheimer's patients, those patients who had rated their relationship with their caregiver as especially close kept more of their cognitive and functional abilities over the course of the study (up to four years).

The caregivers studied included spouses, adult children and adult children-in-law. Those patients cared for by close spouses fared the best, with changes similar to what would be expected if they'd been taking drugs known as acetylcholinesterase inhibitors (these drugs include Aricept, Exelon and Razadyne).

The study was funded by the National Institute on Aging and conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins and Utah State University. It's to be published in the September issue of the Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences. Here's the release.

And here are two recent Booster Shot posts from staff writer Shari Roan about medical attempts to thwart the disease: A puzzling finding for promising Alzheimer's drug... about dimebolin's effect on beta amyloid in the brain. And A new Alzheimer's treatment in an old remedy... about the possibility that intravenous immunoglobulin might help prevent or treat the disease.

For a broader look at the disease from a special Health section in November, all from staff writer Melissa Healy, there's: Memory loss: What's normal? What's not?; Early warning signs of Alzheimer's disease; The case for early diagnosis of Alzheimer's; and Bad health habits and lifestyle choices are among Alzheimer's causes.

Plus, here's an overview of current treatments from the Alzheimer's Assn.; a caregiver guide from the National Institute on Aging; a collection of resources and advice from Medline Plus, part of the National Library of Medicine; and a blog from Sherri, who's been there.   

She writes in a recent post: "When you provide long-term care for someone suffering from a debilitating illness like Alzheimer’s, the journey is not a sprint – it’s a cross country trek that most are not trained and prepared for."

-- Tami Dennis

Photo: Emotional intimacy seems crucial.

Credit: Los Angeles Times

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