Caring Currents

Does Caring for a Sick Family Member Raise Your Stroke Risk?

Last updated: Jan 20, 2010

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Image by hweiling used under the creative commons attribution license.

If you ever needed proof that caring for an aging or ill family member can be bad for your health if you don't pay enough attention to YOU, here it is. Researchers at the University of South Florida studied close to 800 people caring for a sick spouse and found that those who reported caregiving as "stressful" were 23 percent more likely to also rate at high risk for stroke based on traditional risk factors.

The connection between stress and stroke was particularly strong for husbands caring for ailing wives, said psychologist William Haley, who led the research team and published the study in the journal Stroke.

The researchers measured each participant's stroke risk using the Framingham Stroke Risk Score, which assesses a series of risk factors such as blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, and age, and then delivers an overall stroke risk. Then they rated the participants on the degree of "strain" they were feeling from their caregiving role, using a standard score based on how many days during the past week respondents had felt depressed, lonely, sad, or had crying spells. The results -- which are probably not surprising to those of us caring for ill family members -- showed that those who scored high on "strain" had stroke risk scores that were an average of 23 percent higher than normal.

So what does this tell us? People who felt "stressed" by caring for a sick family member were more likely to have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and other conditions. In other words, they themselves were getting sick, probably for two reasons.
1. The stress of caregiving was taking a toll on their bodies.
2. They weren't taking care of themselves because they were too busy caring for someone else.

Sound familiar? It sounds way too familiar to me. During the last year of my mom's life, when I was at her house almost as much as I was at my own, I developed severe back pain and my own blood pressure and cholesterol spiked. But I didn't even know about the hypertension and cholesterol -- it wasn't until after my mom passed away, when I finally made an appointment to get help with my back pain, that routine tests revealed the other problems. What do you want to bet that many of the caregivers followed in this study also didn't know they had conditions putting them at risk for stroke?

Interestingly, according to the researchers, the reason men caring for wives had higher stroke risk than women caring for husbands was not that the men were under more strain - rather it's just that they were less accustomed to dealing with such strain. Actually, both groups reported equal degrees of strain, but the men's stroke risk was higher. The researchers concluded that men are more affected by the stress of caregiving -- unless, that is, they were well off enough to be able to afford paid help. "Women are more prepared to be caregivers and show less risk tied to strain," said Haley.

The study left me wondering, though, about the different effects stress can have: those that are more external and those that are more internal. Men under stress from caregiving may be more likely to manifest their distress with visible symptoms like rising blood pressure and diabetes, but women may simply react to the stress in more internal ways. Depression, for example, is often considered a symptom of internalized stress. Would love to hear your thoughts on this.