While it may seem cruelly ironic, studies have indicated that people who act as caregivers for loved ones (particularly significant others) with Alzheimer's disease (AD) have a heightened risk for developing dementia themselves.
One study estimates that a dementia caregiver is six times more likely to develop the disease than a non-caregiver. Others have shown that caregivers for people with AD have consistently ranked lower than same-aged non-caregivers on assessments of memory, attention, and cognitive functioning.
Researchers theorize that a combination of factors, including caregiver isolation, depression, and increased stress, contribute to cognitive decline and increased vulnerability to dementia.
Social isolation is an often overlooked side effect of caring for a loved one living with dementia.
Family and friends may become more distant following a diagnosis, especially if a dementia patient is experiencing disruptive behavior changes and difficulty communicating.
Typically, busy caregivers are also spread thin. Finding the time and energy to socialize and nurture relationships often takes a back seat to managing a loved one's care.
Caregiving for a person who has Alzheimer's is an extremely taxing endeavor. When you're stressed, your body may release a hormone called cortisol. Too much cortisol can weaken a person's immune system, damage their ability to learn, elevate blood pressure, and increase inflammation in the brain. Research has shown that chronic inflammation of the brain plays a role in cognitive decline.
In addition, family caregivers' high stress levels may trigger negative lifestyle changes, such as poor diet and reduced physcial activity — two factors proven to increase a person's risk for developing dementia.
Health Implications for Caregivers
Sometimes, the best way to care for your loved one is to care for yourself.
Isolation and stress associated with being a caregiver can lead to serious mental health conditions like depression — yet another dementia risk factor.
Your health and happiness matter, too. It's essential for family caregivers to find respite that allows them to stay active, social, and engaged in the hobbies they love. Being able to step away and recharge will help safeguard your physical and mental health while caregiving.
Research has also pointed to the remarkable benefits of participating in caregiver support groups. Whether you join an in-person or online group, being able to share your trials and triumphs with people who know where you're coming from is priceless.