A little exercise can improve the health, ease the sleep and brighten the mood of people who care full time for a family member with dementia, studies find. And better nutrition also helps caregivers improve their outlook and reduce stress.
“There is a lot to be gained by caregivers taking care of their own health,” said Cynthia M. Castro of the Stanford University School of Medicine.
Castro and her colleagues studied 100 women with an average age of 62 who were caring for a spouse or a parent with dementia, typically Alzheimer’s disease.
“Our approach was to find something that would work in their daily schedule so it wouldn’t be an additional burden,” Castro said.
The women were divided about equally into two groups, one focused on exercise, the other on better nutrition. At the start of the study, they were instructed on how to improve in those two areas.
For those in the exercise group, a staffer tailored a plan for each participant’s activity preferences and the bounds imposed by her family member’s physical and mental limitations.
Three-quarters of the women chose to walk briskly for 30 to 40 minutes a day at least four times a week. However, this required the women to find someone else who could take over caregiving during that period, and not all could do this. Those who had to stay in the home used stationary bikes or exercise videos.
The nutrition group was counseled on how to have heart-healthy diets, meeting the standards of such organizations as the American Heart Association. Other studies have found that women who are heavily involved in caregiving tend to neglect their own need for a balanced diet.
Throughout the yearlong study, all participants received 15 telephone calls each from staffers who monitored progress and answered the women’s questions about their programs. The women also kept logs noting their progress toward meeting their goals.
Women in the exercise arm stayed with the program for an average of almost 10 months, and women in the nutrition education arm kept up their activity for almost nine months.
Women in both groups reported equal reductions depression as well as their perceptions of being stressed and burdened, Castro and her colleagues said in a report in the May-June issue of the journal Psychosomatic Medicine. She believed the women’s mental states improved because they felt more in control of their lives.
“I think there is a lot of confidence that comes from a new health behavior, and getting some feedback and seeing how you are doing,” she said.