Maintaining a healthy social life and doing things you enjoy is important for everyone’s quality of life. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

When loved ones develop dementia, it’s hard to know how to make their lives better. But now researchers have pinpointed ways to help these folks live as well as possible.

“While many investigations focus on prevention and better treatments, it’s equally vital that we understand how we can optimize quality of life for the 50 million people worldwide who have dementia,” said researcher Linda Clare. She’s a professor at the University of Exeter in England.

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Our Take

In 35 years as a doctor, Spectrum Health’s Iris Boettcher, MD, has seen positive changes in the realm of dementia treatment—new studies, valuable findings, useful advice.

Awareness, however, is one aspect that still needs some work.

“There is a lot of undiagnosed dementia,” she said. “People just attribute it to old age.”

“Once you have a diagnosis, you can then understand that it is a disease—as opposed to attributing it to people just being stubborn or writing it off as old age.”

Luckily, there’s more and more support in the community for people with dementia.

“Grand Rapids in particular has a campaign going on around becoming a dementia-friendly community,” Dr. Boettcher said.

That campaign, Rethinking Dementia, teaches people how to interact with those who have dementia.

“There are simple things you can do,” she said. “One is just recognizing that someone may be having trouble. There are opportunities for people to learn. You don’t have to be clinical—it’s just good citizenship, learning how to work with people who have dementia.”

In the study, her team reviewed 198 studies that included more than 37,000 people. The investigators found that poor mental or physical health, problems such as agitation or apathy, and unmet needs are associated with poor quality of life for people with dementia.

Factors associated with better quality of life included good relationships, social engagement, better daily functioning, good physical and mental health, and high-quality care.

“We now need to develop ways to put these findings into action to make a difference to people’s lives by supporting relationships, social engagement and everyday functioning, addressing poor physical and mental health, and ensuring high-quality care,” Clare said in an Exeter news release.

Gender, education, marital status, income, age and type of dementia were not associated with quality of life.

According to Doug Brown, chief policy and research officer at Alzheimer’s Society in the United Kingdom, “Maintaining a healthy social life and doing things you enjoy is important for everyone’s quality of life. As this Alzheimer’s Society-funded study highlights, people living with dementia are no exception,” he said.

“Someone develops dementia every three minutes, but too many are facing it alone and feel socially isolated—a factor that researchers pinpoint contributing to a lower quality of life,” Brown added.