The Dementia Caregiver’s Risk for Dementia
According to researchers, spouses of dementia patients are six times more likely to get dementia themselves because of chronic stress. These stress reduction techniques for caregivers may help.
Researchers followed 1,221 married couples in Utah who were 65 and older for up to 12 years, tracking dementia diagnoses in the group. Among the 255 people who developed dementia, researchers found that their spouses were six times more likely to be diagnosed with dementia themselves, compared to those who didn’t have a spouse with dementia. Men were at higher risk than women after their partners became ill. The study authors concluded that dementia caregiving is a physical and emotional burden and that watching a partner deteriorate is very stressful.
The study is the first population-based research to explore dementia risk in spouses of people with dementia. Previous studies already signaled that having a spouse with dementia can lead to depression and cognitive decline, such as learning and memory problems. Researchers say more studies need to be done.
How Stress Can Increase Dementia Risk
Dementia caregiving already puts you at risk for developing depression and other health problems, but stress in particular affects the hippocampus area in the brain — where memories are stored.
When you’re under chronic stress from a responsibility such as caregiving, your body produces the stress hormone cortisol, which travels through the blood to every area of your body, including your brain, says Dharma Singh Khalsa, MD, the Tucson, Ariz.-based founding president and medical director of the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation and author of Brain Longevity.
“It kills brain cells by the thousands or millions, especially in the memory center of the brain,” Dr. Khalsa says. People who are taking care of spouses with dementia are particularly at risk because their psychological well-being plummets, he says — when you’re a caregiver, it’s easy to lose touch with your own life and lose a sense of purpose other than taking care of your spouse.
5 Ways to Protect Yourself
Controlling your stress level is important for protecting your own mental health. Your brain has a stress center, but it also has a relaxation center, Khalsa says. Learning how to touch that relaxation spot will help bring balance when you’re dealing with chronic stress. You can lower your cortisol — and stress — levels and improve your well-being. Try these ideas:
- Keep your spouse active while you take a break. It’s healthy for people with dementia to stay active and be stimulated, so it’s important to get your spouse out of the house to spend time at a senior center or go to the movies with a friend, Khalsa says. This allows the caregiver some valuable “me time.”
- Do something for yourself every day. Whether it’s doing yoga, taking a long lunch with a friend, or getting a massage, know that it’s essential to your health do something you enjoy every day.
- Try meditation. Meditation has been shown to improve stress levels and feelings of well-being, Khalsa says.
- Work on your physical health. A nutrient-rich diet, such as the Mediterranean diet full of fruits and vegetables and limited red meat, can help you stay healthy physically and mentally, Khalsa says. Although not proven, taking supplements that contain C, E, and B vitamins and fish oil may also help keep your brain healthy, he says.
- Build your cognitive reserve. You may have heard that doing crossword puzzles or word games are good for your brain, but Khalsa says novel experiences are what really help memory — try going to a museum with a friend and then talking about the exhibit afterward, getting involved with a hobby, playing music, creating art, or simply taking a walk and noting the color of the sky, the cloud formations, and other details of your environment.
When you do these activities, you build your cognitive reserve, which is a lot like building muscle at the gym, says Khalsa. Your brain will be stronger when you keep it active and that may mean forestalling dementia or having fewer symptoms, should you develop it.