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Caring for the Caregiver

Taking care of someone with heart disease or dementia or who's had a stroke offers benefits and rewards for both of you. At the same time, it can drain your time, energy, and finances. If you don't watch out, it can sap your health as well. Caregivers are more prone to heart disease and depression, lower resistance against infection, and dying earlier.

In a meta-analysis of 23 studies examining health and physiological functioning in caregivers of persons with dementia, researchers found that caregivers had higher stress hormones, lower resistance to some viruses, and reported poorer health than noncaregivers who were similar in age and sex.

The studies involved 3,072 participants ages 55 to 75 over a 38-year period. Researchers compared the physical health of caregivers demographically matched with noncaregivers on various health categories, including self-reported health, chronic illnesses, physical symptoms, medication use, health service use, antibodies, stress hormones, and cardiovascular function. The caregivers had a 23% higher level of stress hormones and a 15% lower level of antibody responses than noncaregivers.

Elevated stress hormones can lead to high blood pressure and glucose levels which can increase the risk for hypertension and diabetes. Also, diminished antibody production in older people may increase their risk for influenza - even if they receive flu shots.

Female caregivers reported more health problems but they did not exhibit higher hormone, cardiovascular, or metabolic disease risk than male caregivers. This could be because women are more likely to report health problems than men.

Whether you are taking care of someone with dementia, recovering from a heart attack, or crippled by congestive heart failure or a stroke, getting organized, making connections with people who can assist you, and taking a break now and then can help you take care of your loved one and yourself.

If the person you care for hasn't signed a health care proxy, put this high on your to-do list. This document lets an individual appoint someone to decide about treatment if he or she loses the ability to make medical decisions. Make sure that his or her doctors and the hospital have a copy.

The term "caregiver" conjures up images of a gentle soul who fluffs pillows, soothes the fevered brow, and ladles out steamy bowls of rich chicken soup. The reality is far less romantic. It involves mundane jobs such as arranging doctors' visits, keeping track of medications, preparing special meals, or helping your loved one get dressed or go to the bathroom. You may also need to learn how to measure blood pressure, give injections, and operate complicated medical devices.

Such responsibilities can be bewildering, even overwhelming, especially when they are compounded by fears that your loved one will die or worries about how to pay for everything. You can find helpful tips for caring for your loved one and yourself in the print copy of the Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide .

March 2004 Update

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