Caregivers at Increased Risk of Heart Attack and Depression

By Tom Iarocci, MD. May 7th 2016

Vital to families, their communities and the entire health care system, at-home caregivers tend to their loved ones 24/7.

Whether you tend to an aging parent, a special-needs child, food-allergic best friend or a depressed spouse, the continual sacrifices prove to be physically and emotionally demanding. Even if you’re not the primary caregiver — perhaps a nurse or a professional therapist comes to your home to provide treatment during the week — you’re still the custodian of someone who desperately needs you. 

Along with these responsibilities comes an incredible amount of strain. Unfortunately, caregivers who experience anxiety due to these constant demands are at increased risk for poor health, including heart disease, chronic stress, high blood pressure and depression.

Recognizing the signs of a heart attack

Caregivers often overlook or deny their own needs, which can have dire consequences. Researchers at Harvard Medical School and the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia found that in the months and years after a wife or husband is hospitalized, often a sign of severe illness, the risk of death for a caregiving spouse rises dramatically.

In fact, in some situations, having an ill partner is as emotionally and physically devastating for your heart and other organs as losing a spouse. Caregivers are at risk of a heart attack, and interestingly, researchers found the danger was greatest in the first months after hospitalization, then declined for six to nine months before beginning to climb again.

Although certainly possible in younger adults, heart attacks are more common in caregivers who are middle-aged and taking care of an older spouse or senior parent. Recognizing this wide array of unhealthy symptoms is crucial. Realizing that it can happen to you as well as those in your care is a big first step, and acting quickly is key. The American Heart Association warns, “If you have chest pain or other symptoms of heart attack that last longer than five minutes, do not ignore it. Seek emergency care to rule out a heart attack.” Common and noticeable symptoms of heart disease in caregivers include:

  • Chest pain, tightness in the middle of the chest
  • Pain in the upper body including arms, shoulders, back and neck 
  • Feeling of indigestion or heartburn
  • Difficulty breathing and shortness of breath
  • Cold sweats
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Feeling dizzy, light-headed or weak  
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat

Stress and depression in caregivers

In addition to heart disease, caregivers are also at risk of stress, depression and poor health.

Researchers at Harvard Medical School and the University of Pennsylvania theorize that the effects of daily stress is maximized when the caregiver gradually loses social, emotional, economic or practical day-to-day support. Of course, that’s all too easy to do when you’re immersed in the life-or-death struggles of a family member, says the American Heart Association in an in-depth report on caregiving.    

According to the National Center on Caregiving, estimates show between 40 and 70 percent of caregivers have clinically significant symptoms of depression, with up to one-half of caregivers also meeting the diagnostic criteria for major depression.

Caregivers under pressure should be especially watchful for these symptoms of depression or stress:

  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Abuse of sleeping pills
  • Smoking
  • Unhealthy eating or skipping meals  
  • Lack of exercise
  • Insomnia and poor sleep quality

Caregivers: Take the next step

It’s not surprising that caregivers are under a lot of stress. If you’re a caregiver, you can recognize the signs of being overwhelmed by listening keenly to your own body, and seeking medical care and support when you need it. Much research suggests that it’s mostly the emotional stress of caregiving, and not the care itself (cleaning/cooking/administering medication, etc.), that can cause declining health.

Before you instigate major changes, understand that:

  • You are not alone, but you do need to rejuvenate regularly without feeling guilty.
  • Right now, you can start being kinder to yourself. Instead of getting sucked into the constant worrying, close your eyes for five minutes, pray or meditate, or read a great book for 10 minutes.
  • If you’re struggling with drugs and alcohol, get professional help immediately.
  • Pick one healthy change to focus on first. Once you accomplish a primary aim (to stop taking sleeping pills, for instance), you may find it easier to start sticking with other healthy habits.
  • Take several 10- to 15-minute exercise breaks daily to combat feelings of depression naturally, and make sure you get enough sleep.
  • Seek out people who will listen without judging you. You might find support in your family, or via a place of worship or a local hospital.
  • There are support groups specific to the illness, disease or condition in your family. Check out caregiver resources and stay connected to the outside world.
  • Reducing all of your caregiver stress won’t happen overnight, but if you start with small tweaks and carve out time and space for yourself, you’ll feel healthier and happier.

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