Caring for someone who is ill is emotionally and often physically draining as well. Caring for someone who has Alzheimer's or other form of dementia can often lead to the carers themselves becoming sick, exhausted, stressed, depressed, fearful and lonely.
In Australia we have over 250,000 people living with dementia, that's over 1% of our total population. For every person with the disease there are on average 2.5 caregivers involved in their care. Often the primary caregiver is a spouse, partner or family member. They themselves may be relatively elderly with other associated health problems and susceptibility to stress induced cardiovascular illness and increased mortality.
With the number of people living with dementia expected to triple by 2050, we need to be looking at ways not only to assist the person with the illness, but also the carers themselves: providing sufficient support and access to appropriate services.
The problem in being a carer is not only does it increase your own risk of illness and exhaustion; the ongoing stress significantly increases your risk of depression and for developing dementia.
So what can be done to help alleviate some of the strain?
Dr Helen Lavretsky from UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behaviour has published the findings of a new study, which examined the value of providing yoga meditation practice for carers.
What the study showed was firstly
1. An improved level of cognitive function and lower levels of depression and
2. A reduction in stress induced cellular aging
What does this means for carers?
Carers will often report high levels of emotional distress and 50% are at risk of developing clinical depression. In the study, 49 carers (age range 45- 91) were either taught a brief 12 minute yogic practice that included chanting meditation Kirtan Kriya, or, if they were in the control group they sat in a quiet place with their eyes closed, listening to instrumental music on a relaxation CD for 12 minutes.
After 8 weeks of those in the mediation group, 65% showed a 50% improvement on a depression rating scale, and 52% showed an improvement on a mental health score.
This compared to a 31% depression improvement and 19% mental health improvement for the relaxation group.
So learning brief yogic mediation made a significant difference in a very short time frame. One would imagine that this would provide ongoing benefit if the carer was to continue with the practice on a daily basis. Professor Lavretsky commented that the benefits appear to be specific to Kirtan Kriya, which incorporates several different elements of chanting, finger poses and visualisation.She describes this as providing "brain fitness" in addition to the stress reduction.
The other interesting finding was in relation to cellular ageing.
At the end of our chromosomes we have what are called telomeres. An enzyme called telomerase helps to maintain our telomeres. If the enzyme telomerase activity is absent, then every time our cells divide, our telomeres get shorter until eventually the cells die. Promoting or maintaining a higher level of telomerase therefore helps our telomeres to be maintained and immune cell longevity.
In the study there was a whopping difference between the two groups in terms of increase in telomerase activity.
The mediating group showed a 43% improvement in telomerase activity compared to just 3.7% in the relaxation group.
Professor Lavretsky now plans a follow up study to confirm these findings using a neuroimaging study of Kirtan Kriya meditation. She has also incorporated yoga into the caregiver program as part of the UCLA Alzheimer's and Dementia Care program. This program aims to provide comprehensive coordinated care, resources and support to both patients and caregivers.
The great thing about this study is the huge amount of benefit provided to the carers through a simple and inexpensive yoga program. It would be fantastic if this could be made available on a wide scale to all carers as it could make all the difference between "just surviving" and "managing well."
Ref: H. Lavretsky, E.S. Epel, P. Siddarth, N. Nazarian, N. St. Cyr, D.S. Khalsa, J. Lin, E. Blackburn, M.R. Irwin. A pilot study of yogic meditation for family dementia caregivers with depressive symptoms: effects on mental health, cognition, and telomerase activity. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 2012; DOI: 10.1002/gps.3790