November 11, 2003
Caring for a loved one with Alzheimer's disease can be incredibly stressful, a task that has been said to require a "36-hour day." It may also impair physical well being, a new analysis reports. Researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle found that men and women who cared for a spouse or family member with dementia faced increased susceptibility to infections, higher levels of stress hormones and poorer general health than their age-matched controls who were not in a caregiving position.
Reporting in the November 2003 issue of the Psychological Bulletin, published by the American Psychological Association, the investigators compiled data on more than 3,000 caregivers collected from 23 scientific studies. The data included reports on general physical health, including long-term illness and doctor and hospital visits, as well as lab markers of heart and immune function. In the caregivers, levels of stress hormones were 23 percent higher than in non-caregivers. Levels of antibodies, which measure the immune system's capacity to resist viruses such as the flu and other infections, were 15 percent lower. Although the findings do not definitively link the stress of caregiving with frail physical health, with time, elevated stress hormones can increase the risk of physical ailments such as high blood pressure and diabetes, the authors report. Numerous studies suggest that stress and low immunity can lead to long-term health problems.
"As the population ages, caregivers will play an even greater role in society, and interventions that help caregivers maintain their health will not only benefit the care recipients but society as well," says lead author Dr. Peter Vitaliano, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington. With nearly five million Americans today currently suffering from the devastation of Alzheimer's, and many more touched by the disease, the burden of caregiving will escalate in coming years.
A Growing Burden
In the analysis, female caregivers reported more physical complaints than the men, although the researchers speculate that women may be more aware of health issues and more likely to report them. "Men may find it hard to verbalize their feelings," says Dr. Vitaliano, "but avoiding one's feelings may only make things worse. Some men may find it especially difficult to admit they hurt in front of women. Such men my benefit more from all-male support groups."
Dr. Vitaliano also stresses the importance of not becoming isolated and taking time out. "Many caregivers think that if they spend time on themselves they are taking away care from their loved ones," he explains. "But if they do not look out for number one, who will take care of them and their loved one if they get sick?"
He suggests several additional measures to help minimize the stress of caregiving.
*Eat a nutritious diet, including healthy soups that can be stored and eaten at several meals. Avoid fatty and sugary foods, including many TV dinners.
*Exercise. Regular activity counters stress hormones, says Dr. Vitaliano. It should also help boost immunity and lower the risk of gaining fat and diabetes.
*Take advantage of respite services. Getting help provides a much needed break so that you can continue to enjoy activities you engaged in before becoming a caregiver. It may also provide a buffer against poor health. "Denying yourself the pleasant things in life may only exacerbate the distress of caregiving," says Dr. Vitaliano.
Research has revealed that counseling and ongoing support provides essential help for minimizing the stress of caregiving for more information, click here Alzheimer's Research on Caregiving.
www.Alzinfo.org offers a wealth of additional tips for caregivers.
By www.ALZinfo.org. Reviewed by Samuel E. Gandy, M.D., Ph.D., Chairman of the Scientific Advisory Board, Fisher Center for Alzheimer's Research Foundation.