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Heart Disease Caregivers

By , Caring.com contributing editor
Last updated: November 12, 2012

Caring for someone with heart disease? You're at special risk for health problems yourself, researchers say. Blame the triple-threat combo of stress, lifestyle choices, and genes.

That's the finding when 423 caregivers were tracked by New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center researchers for a year after a loved one was hospitalized with cardiovascular disease.

The family members reporting the highest level of strain from heart-condition caregiving were at higher risk of developing heart disease themselves.

"Caregivers often neglect their health as a result of the demands of caregiving," said Richard Birkel, senior vice president for health at the National Council on Aging in Washington, D.C., in a Health Behavior News Service report. "This neglect is most likely one of the pathways which high rates of morbidity and early mortality become associated with caregiving."

To avoid this trap, the researchers recommend:

  • Take time for personal activities: Heart-patient caregivers who felt most stressed (by sleep disturbances, time demands, money worries, and other factors) were less likely to exercise or eat well in the year after their relative's hospitalization, the study found. Yet exercise and relaxation are critical to easing stress, they say.

  • Ask for help: Trying to go it alone is a recipe for added stress.

  • Maintain a heart-smart diet: Heart-patient caregivers in particular may share an unhealthy way of eating with the person who got sick. Siblings or adult children may also share the patient's genetic predispositions to cardiovascular disease. Consider your loved one's health to be a wake-up call to adopt a heart healthy diet for both of you.

  • Don't smoke and keep alcohol intake moderate: While these factors weren't looked at in the study, Birkel notes that they're nevertheless key to heart health.

  • Know the signs of depression. This is important given that the most overwhelmed caregivers are at highest risk. There are many steps you can take to avoid caregiver stress syndrome.

The study was in the American Journal of Health Promotion.

When a loved one is discharged after heart surgery, the natural impulse is to focus on nothing but helping him or her get better. But this research is yet another reminder that discharge is also the point at which your focus absolutely has to be on yourself, alongside with the patient.