Finding a silver-bullet cure for dementia may still be years or decades away, but researchers have found evidence that simple social interaction may go a long way to ease certain symptoms of the disease.
A new study published today in PLOS One states that socially interacting with a person with dementia for just one hour per week can significantly improve their quality of life and reduce agitation levels.
Researchers from the University of Exeter Medical School studied 69 nursing homes in the United Kingdom to see if a new program focused on patient-centered care could improve patients’ quality of life.
This type of treatment may be key in the future due to an aging population in countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States.
Dr. Maria Carney, a geriatrician and chief of the division of geriatric and palliative care medicine at Northwell Health in New York, said she’s seen firsthand more and more elderly patients becoming isolated and, as a result, unhealthy.
“This becomes a cycle — isolation, loneliness, depression, illness — that we’re seeing more and more, and it’s been well-documented,” she told Healthline.
Changing quality of life
In this study, researchers wanted to see if patients’ reported agitation levels could be diminished by having more social interaction.
Agitation is a common symptom among people with dementia. It can significantly decrease a person’s quality of life.
Professor Clive Ballard, a pro-vice-chancellor at the University of Exeter Medical School who led the research, said past studies have determined that people with dementia get just two minutes per day of social interaction.
“Our approach improves care and saves money,” Ballard said in a statement. “We must roll out approaches that work to do justice to some of the most vulnerable people in society.”
As the population in many Western countries rise, experts have also been looking for ways to ease a variety of dementia symptoms by methods that don’t always involve medication.
In the United States, approximately 64 percent of people receiving Medicare in nursing homes have dementia, according to the study authors.
Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, is expected to rise to 16 million by 2050 from about 5 million today, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
A new way to help dementia patients
Ballard and the other researchers had about half of the nursing homes take part in the WHELD (Improving Well-Being and Health for People with Dementia) trial.
This trial focuses on training “patient-centered care” techniques to people working with dementia patients, and seeing how the patients fare.
This training included planning out care plans and providing “tailored, structural social activities” for each patient. The goal is to provide 60 minutes of social activity per week for each person.
Staff members were also given more information about the effects of antipsychotic medication and how to better understand the needs of distressed or agitated patients.
In total, there were 640 patients still in the study at the nine-month mark. The United Kingdom’s National Institute for Health Research funded the study.
The researchers found that these patients — who had at least an hour of social activity per week — had lower rates of agitated behaviors as reported by their caregivers.
They also had better quality of life as measured by a questionnaire and fewer neuropsychiatric symptoms.
Costs were also lower in institutions that used WHELD intervention. However, the team didn’t find lower usage of antipsychotic medication in the group that was in the WHELD nursing homes.
Doug Brown, PhD, director of research and development at the Alzheimer’s Society, which helped collaborate on this study, said in a statement that it’s “vital that staff have the right training to provide good quality dementia care.”
“A person-centered approach takes into account each individual’s unique qualities, abilities, interests, preferences and needs,” Brown said in a statement. “This study shows that training to provide this type of individualized care, activities, and social interactions can have a significant impact of the well-being of people living with dementia in care homes. It also shows that this kind of effective care can reduce costs, which the stretched social care system desperately needs.”
Carney said this study adds to research proving how critical social interaction can be, especially for elderly people.
“I think it’s a nice study in that it shows how an educational intervention can impact patient care significantly and quality life,” she said.
Carney added that this WHELD intervention also points to a different method for helping patients, aside from the traditional medicated methods.
“We’re so established to give a pill or do a procedure,” she said.
Carney noted this method of more interaction with patients could be beneficial in part because it could be replicated quickly. Unlike a new pill, it doesn’t have to be subject to approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
“For those individuals with needs, if they’re in a skilled nursing facility… it can almost be an environment to thrive in if they’re having social interaction,” she said. “We are social beings.”