Can talk therapy improve the mental health of dementia patients?

Can talk therapy improve the mental health of dementia patients?
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University College London researchers explored whether talk therapy can benefit people living with dementia if they also suffer from anxiety or depression.

Mental health problems are very common in people with dementia. However, in this new study, the researchers are the first to assess whether routine talk therapy from the NHS may be helpful to relieve symptoms.

The researchers focussed on the ‘Improving Access to Psychological Therapies’ (IAPT), which is a free NHS service and offers evidence-based therapies for treating anxiety and depression, including cognitive behaviour therapy, counselling, and guided self-help, with sessions available face-to-face, in groups and online.

The study is published in eClinical Medicine.

Finding the right group of participants

The researchers examined data from 2,515,402 people who had clinically significant anxiety or depression and completed talk therapy via the IAPT service in England between 2012 and 2019.

In order to partake, the participants needed to meet certain criteria:

  • Clinical levels of depressive symptoms as measured using a standard questionnaire which considers factors such as a lack of interest in doing things, issues with sleep, and feelings of low mood.
  • Clinical levels of anxiety based on a standard measure, which asks patients questions about how much they worry or have trouble relaxing.

Following these criteria, the researchers found 1,549 people that could partake. They also used a control group of 1,329 people to assess whether therapy outcomes differed between people who had dementia and who did not.

Talk therapy benefits

The researchers found that in people with dementia, talk therapy was clinically beneficial, and 63% of participants saw a reduction in symptoms of depression and anxiety. Approximately, 40% recovered completely.

In comparison, in the control group, 70% of participants saw an improvement in symptoms and 47% recovered.

Lead author, PhD candidate Georgia Bell (UCL Psychology & Language Sciences), said: “Anxiety and depression are very common in people with dementia. They are extremely debilitating and associated with worse outcomes for both the person with dementia and their carers.

“This is the largest ever study to investigate outcomes of psychological therapies in people living with dementia. Our findings suggest that while people with dementia are less likely to improve or recover than those without dementia, psychological therapies offered in primary care mental health services can be beneficial for them.

“Consequently, our findings support the use of IAPT to treat anxiety and depression in people with dementia. We hope this study will have implications for encouraging referrals and adaptations to increase access and enhance outcomes for people living with dementia.”

Previously, there was limited evidence that talk therapy adequately supported dementia patients; however, the evidence found in this study confirmed NHS treatment is beneficial.

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