Family caregivers of dementia patients may be more vulnerable to illness

November 29, 2000

The chronic stress of caring for a family member with dementia may dampen the immune systems of the elderly caregivers, according to the results of a small study.

"Dementia caregiving can be quite taxing," said lead author Ronald Glaser, PhD, of the department of molecular virology, immunology and medical genetics at Ohio State University in Columbus. "Family members must cope with severe behavioral problems including incontinence, wandering and the inability to communicate or recognize familiar people."

These findings add to growing evidence regarding the negative effects of caregiving on immune response, according to the study.

After administering a bacterial pneumonia vaccine to 52 elderly study participants, Glaser and colleagues analyzed their immune responses. Eleven participants were currently caring for spouses with dementia, 13 were former caregivers whose spouses had died approximately two years before, and 28 were non-caregivers.

Immediately after the vaccination the researchers saw no difference between the groups, but over the next six months, the immune responses of the caregivers declined, while those of former and non-caregivers remained stable.

The study results appear in the November/December issue of Psychosomatic Medicine.

Chronic stress may have led to a reduction in the number of immune cells in the caregivers or an impairment in the functioning of these cells, suggested Glaser and colleagues.

According to the researchers, the poor response of caregivers to the pneumonia vaccine suggests these individuals may also have difficulty protecting themselves from illnesses such as the flu. The researchers had shown previously a similar impact of caregiving on individuals' response to the influenza vaccine. "These findings are of particular concern since the elderly already experience reductions in immune response as a normal part of aging," said Glaser. "Pneumonia and influenza are together the fourth leading cause of death among individuals 75 or older."
The research was supported by grants from the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute on Aging.

Psychosomatic Medicine is the official bimonthly peer-reviewed journal of the American Psychosomatic Society. For information about the journal, contact Joel E. Dimsdale, MD, at (619) 543-5468.

Posted by the Center for the Advancement of Health For more research news and information, go to our special section devoted to health and behavior in the "Peer-Reviewed Journals" area of Eurekalert!, For information about the Center, call Petrina Chong, (202) 387-2829.

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