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A new study shows that talk therapy helped 63% of people with dementia reduce their symptoms of depression or anxiety. Getty Images/Stocksy FatCamera/Getty Images
  • Many people with dementia also navigate mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.
  • Researchers from the University College London recently found that talk therapy helped 63% of people with dementia lower their depression or anxiety symptoms.
  • The research team said that psychotherapy helped 40% of participants improve their symptoms to the point of being no longer diagnosed as having depression or anxiety.

Past research has shown that many people with dementia also have mental health concerns such as depression and anxiety.

A new study from the University College London (UCL) found talk therapy improved depression and anxiety symptoms in 63% of people with dementia.

What’s more, 40% of participants improved to the extent that they were no longer diagnosed as having anxiety or depression by the end of their treatment.

This study was recently published in the journal eClinicalMedicine.

Talk therapy — also known as psychotherapy — involves talking with a mental health professional about what is bothering you.

What you talk about differs from person to person and may include discussions about how you’re currently feeling, what you’ve been thinking about lately, and any health concerns you may have, such as sleeping problems.

As you talk with the mental health professional, they pick up on cues and information you provide to help you figure out what might be ailing you and what types of additional treatment you might need.

Mental health professionals use talk therapy to treat a variety of mental health concerns, including:

Past research shows when a person verbalizes their thoughts, feelings of sadness, anger, and pain diminish.

And a previous study found talk therapy helps strengthen specific connections in the brain, allowing them to impact a person’s long-term recovery.

For the new study, UCL researchers examined data from over 1,500 people who had dementia and participated in Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) in the United Kingdom between 2012 and 2019. IAPT provides free therapies for anxiety and depression, including a type of talk therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

Talk therapy sessions occurred either face-to-face, individually, in a group, or online.

Researchers then compared the data to a control group of about 1,300 people who did not have dementia.

Upon analysis, the research team found that 63% of people with dementia reduced their depression or anxiety symptoms by participating in talk therapy.

Additionally, 40% of participants with dementia improved to the extent that they were no longer diagnosed as having anxiety or depression.

According to lead study author Georgia Bell, a Ph.D. candidate in the Division of Psychology and Language Sciences at University College London (UCL), she was not surprised that people with dementia could benefit from talk therapy.

But Bell said she was somewhat surprised at how effective talked therapy seemed to be and found the study findings encouraging.

“There is not strong evidence for the usefulness of medication for anxiety and depression in dementia,” Bell told Medical News Today. “Additionally, many people, whether or not they have dementia, would rather have talking therapies than medication as a way to manage their mental health problems.”

“Consequently, it is important to have talking therapy as an option for people with dementia to manage anxiety and depression. This is particularly important because anxiety and depression are very common in people with dementia — much more so than in people without — and have many adverse consequences so it is important to find good treatment options.”

– Georgia Bell, lead author of the study

Medical News Today also spoke with Beth A. Kallmyer, MSW, vice president of care and support at the Alzheimer’s Association, about this study. Kallmyer said the findings of this study were very promising, as mental health is an important part of the dementia experience and can sometimes be overlooked.

“Evaluation for depression should be part of the care plan for a person living with dementia,” she explained.

“In addition, the stage of the disease and degree of cognitive decline is an important factor to consider in the application of any talk therapy with a person living with Alzheimer’s or other dementia. They should have a treatment plan that takes the progression of the disease into account, as well as the role of the caregiver, as the disease and symptoms progress.”

Kallmyer added that it’s important to have non-medicinal mental health treatment options for people living with dementia, as drug treatments may have side effects that unnecessarily impair individuals living with dementia or may interact poorly with other medicines.

“It is important to explore non-medical treatments that have minimal or no side effects. Management of the symptoms of the disease is an important part of person-centered care for people living with Alzheimer’s or other dementia. The Alzheimer’s Association provides guidance for clinicians on care planning, which includes evaluation for depression and plans to address any neuropsychiatric symptoms.”

– Beth A. Kallmyer, MSW, vice president of care and support at the Alzheimer’s Association

For people with dementia who have depression or anxiety and are interested in giving talk therapy a try, Kallmyer said they or their loved ones could call the Alzheimer’s Association Helpline to find therapists in their area.

Additionally, Kallmyer suggested people talk with their primary care doctor or neurology clinic to ask for a referral.

The American Psychological Association (APA) also offers an online psychologist locator searchable by zip code, provider name, or practice area.

And when looking for a therapist for yourself or a loved one, consider these tips:

  • Make sure the therapist has a license and accepts your health insurance.
  • Talk with the therapist on the phone first to find out what they specialize in to ensure they will meet your needs.
  • Ask if they offer teletherapy in case meeting in person is difficult or not an option.
  • Remember that selecting a mental health therapist is a very personal choice — you are not bound to a therapist if you do not connect with them, and you can change your therapist at any time.