Simultaneous mindfulness training for residents with early-stage dementia and their caregivers helps both groups, a new study finds.

Patients and their caregivers attending an eight-week program showed improvement in depression scores and sleep quality, as well as their overall quality of life, according to Northwestern University investigators.

The training also helped patients and caregivers accept new ways of communicating, investigators found.

“The disease is challenging for the affected person, family members and caregivers,“ said study lead author Ken Paller, a fellow of the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “Although they know things will likely get worse, they can learn to focus on the present, deriving enjoyment in the moment with acceptance and without excessive worry about the future. This is what was taught in the mindfulness program.”

The study included 37 participants, including 29 individuals who were part of a patient-caregiver pair. Most of the patients were diagnosed with dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease or mild cognitive impairment, often a precursor to dementia. Others had memory loss due to strokes or frontotemporal dementia, which affects emotions as well as speaking and understanding speech. Caregivers included patients’ spouses, adult children, a daughter-in-law and a mother-in-law.

Full findings appeared in the Aug. 25 issue of the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias.

“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,” noted study co-author Sandra Weintraub, a neuropsychologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. 

Alzheimer’s disease is an irreversible, progressive brain disease that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills, and eventually even the ability to carry out the simplest tasks of daily living. Symptoms typically first appear after age 60. Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia among older people.