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Mindfulness training helps Alzheimer's patients and caregivers

Alzheimer's disease takes a psychological and physical toll not only on the affected patients, but also on their caregivers. Now, a new study has shown that training in mindfulness -- learning how to focus on the present moment -- may help improve the emotional well-being of people with early-stage dementia due to Alzheimer's and their caregivers.

Both patients and their caregivers in the study who had attended an eight-week mindfulness training program showed improvement in depression scores and sleep quality, as well as their overall quality of life.

Previous research has shown that people who look after family members suffering from neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's may be particularly vulnerable to anxiety, depression, immune dysfunction and other health concerns.

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"We saw lower depression scores and improved ratings on sleep quality and quality of life for both groups," study author Ken Paller, professor of psychology at Northwestern University and fellow of the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, said in a statement. "After eight sessions of this training we observed a positive difference in their lives."

"Mindfulness involves attentive awareness with acceptance for events in the present moment," Paller said. "You don't have to be drawn into wishing things were different. Mindfulness training in this way takes advantage of people's abilities rather than focusing on their difficulties."

In the study, researchers examined 37 people, including 29 people who were involved in a patient-caregiver relationship. Most of the patients in the study had been diagnosed with dementia due to Alzheimer's disease, mild cognitive impairment, or memory loss due to multiple strokes. The caregivers in the study included patients' spouses, adult children and other relatives.

Despite the patients' mild-to-severe memory loss, they were able to participate in the mindfulness training and experience emotion and positive feelings, according to the study co-author Sandra Weintraub, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern and a neuropsychologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

One of the benefits of mindfulness training is that it helps both the patient and the caregiver accept new ways of communicating, the researchers said.

"One of the major difficulties that individuals with dementia and their family members encounter is that there is a need for new ways of communicating due to the memory loss and other changes in thinking and abilities," Weintraub said in a statement. "The practice of mindfulness places both participants in the present and focuses on positive features of the interaction, allowing for a type of connection that may substitute for the more complex ways of communicating in the past."

"It is a good way to address stress," she added.

The new study was published August 25 in the American Journal of Alzheimer's Disease and Other Dementias.

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