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Stanford Report, April 12, 2000

Caregivers can find time for healthful habits  


Middle-aged women feeling the stresses of caring for an older relative suffering from dementia have some good news from a year-long Stanford University study: simple telephone coaching can improve caregivers' diet and bring them the benefits of exercise.

Abby King, PhD, associate professor of health research and policy and of medicine, said that her team selected the caregiving women because their many time constraints make it difficult for them to participate regularly in health programs offered in the community. "Also, no one has ever attempted to systematically improve these important health behaviors in this group, which is growing as Americans live longer in smaller families amid a dwindling network of potential caregivers," King said. One hundred women with an average age of 63 participated in the study. Women were specifically targeted because 73 percent of home caregivers are women, King explained.

"We are encouraged that this highly vulnerable population responded so well to a relatively simple approach requiring a minimum time commitment and expense," said King.

The group that received encouraging phone calls aimed at promoting physical activity spent an average of 4.9 hours per week being physically active, vs. 2.9 hours for women who didn't get the calls. The exercise consisted primarily of brisk as well as lighter forms of walking. Health educators contacted each participant by phone an average of 14 times during the year, providing encouragement and advice useful to their physical activity program, King said.

A second group wasn't told to exercise but instead received telephone-based nutrition counseling. That group reduced their daily intake of fat to 29 percent, from 33 percent at the study's start.

King presented results of the study on April 6 at the Annual Scientific Sessions of the Society of Behavioral Medicine, in Nashville. Other Stanford researchers included research assistants Kellie Baumann and Paula O'Sullivan, PhD, and postdoc Cynthia Castro, PhD. Also participating was Sara Wilcox, PhD, assistant professor at the University of South Carolina.

The study, conducted at Stanford's Center for Research in Disease Prevention, was funded by the National Institute on Aging, one of the National Institutes of Health.

King and her colleagues are now seeking older family caregivers and noncaregiving older adults to participate in studies promoting physical activity and other health behaviors to enhance healthy aging and quality of life. For more information, please call (650) 725-5018. SR