When you’re a caregiver, all of your attention tends to fall on your loved one who is in need.
You likely fill your days worrying about that person—scheduling doctor appointments, organizing medications, monitoring symptoms and more.
But caregivers may want to carve out a little time to think about themselves…because new research is proving what many of us have known anecdotally for a long time: Caregiving often makes caregivers sick.
That sounds harsh…but it’s honest.
It’s what’s happening.
I’ll show you the new evidence—then we’ll see what we can all do to fix this situation.
Researchers looked at wives and husbands who became caregivers to their spouses after a cancer diagnosis, and what they found was alarming. One to four years after the diagnosis of cancer in the spouse, the caregivers had strokes and coronary heart disease at much higher rates than similar people who had healthy spouses and were not acting as caregivers.
The numbers were breathtaking. Caregiving husbands had a 17% increased risk for heart disease, a 25% increased risk for ischemic stroke (from a clot) and a 26% increased risk for hemorrhagic stroke (from bleeding). Caregiving wives had 29% increased risk for heart disease, a 38% increased risk for ischemic stroke and a 44% increased risk for hemorrhagic stroke. And in cases where the stricken spouse had a cancer with a high mortality rate, such as pancreatic or lung cancer, those numbers tended to be even higher.
Those are huge increases in risk, particularly when you consider that in our society, we often argue and fret over whether some food or drug raises our risk for a disease by 1% or 2%!
REDUCING YOUR RISK
I think we all know on a gut level why caregiving makes people sick—it’s a world of stress. There’s science behind it, though. When I called study author Jianguang Ji, MD, PhD, a researcher at the Center for Primary Health Care Research, Lund University in Sweden, he noted that we know from previous studies that caregivers typically suffer from high levels of fatigue, distress, insomnia and depression and that their quality of life tends to be poor. Prior research also has shown that caregivers usually have high levels of C-reactive protein, a measure of systemic inflammation, which is associated with many diseases, including heart disease and stroke.
Another potential reason that caregivers might be at higher risk, said Dr. Ji, is that spouses (and all close family members, for that matter) usually share similar lifestyle habits. For example, if you’re a caregiver and your spouse eats poorly, smokes and/or drinks excessively, you are more likely to do the same. That might be especially true when you are tired…harried…and unhappy…as caregivers tend to be.
It may be easier said than done, but Dr. Ji advises that if you are a caregiver, it is vital that you stick to your own healthy habits.
He added that several studies have demonstrated that a type of “talk therapy” called cognitive behavioral therapy helps caregivers (and those who have lost loved ones) manage their stress better and improve their sleep. Many hospitals offer support groups for caregivers, widows and widowers, and programs sometimes include this type of therapy. Contact hospitals near you. Plus, Web sites such as www.CareGiver.com provide lists of support groups in each state.
Also, Andrew Rubman, ND, Daily Health News contributing editor and medical director of Southbury Clinic for Traditional Medicines in Southbury, Connecticut, recommends asking your MD and/or ND whether natural supplements might help—ask in
particular about Co-Q10, phosphatidylserine, SAMe, L-carnitine and omega-3s.
Meanwhile, those of us who have friends or family members who are caregivers can take an active role in helping them, both practically and emotionally. For ideas on how to do that (even if you live far away), go to this site from the Mayo Clinic. It’s specifically about helping Alzheimer’s caregivers, but the helpful tips really apply to helping any sort of caregiver.
Sources: Jianguang Ji, MD, PhD, researcher at the Center for Primary Health Care Research, Lund University, Malmo, Sweden. The study was published in the journal Circulation.
Andrew Rubman, ND, medical director of Southbury Clinic for Traditional Medicines in Southbury, Connecticut.