While it may seem cruelly ironic, studies have indicated that people who act as caregivers for loved ones (particularly loved ones) with Alzheimer's have a heightened risk for developing dementia themselves.
On average, it is estimated that this increased risk translates to a caregiver being six times more likely to develop dementia than a non-caregiver.
Numerous investigations have shown that caregivers for people with Alzheimer's have consistently ranked lower than same-aged non-caregivers on assessments of memory, attention, and cognitive functioning. This measurable decrease in cognitive capabilities is thought to put caregivers at greater risk for developing dementia.
Researchers have theorized that a combination of several different factors including; caregiver isolation, and increased stress contributed to this increased vulnerability to dementia.
Social isolation is an often overlooked side-effect of having a loved-one who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.
For a variety of reasons, many of which have to do with being uncomfortable in the presence of a dementia-stricken person, family and friends that used to come over and visit may become more distant in light of an Alzheimer's diagnosis.
When this is compounded by the fact that their loved one can no longer emotionally engage with them in the way that they used to, the caregiver is often left with a hollow shell of their former social life.
Caregiving for a person who has Alzheimer's is an extremely taxing endeavor that can lead to the development of excessive secretions of cortisol, the hormone that is discharged when a person is stressed.
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 inflammation of the brain hastens the development of dementia.
In addition, the extreme amounts of stress associated with being a caregiver can also cause changes in lifestyle habits that can increase their risk of dementia. Caregivers may not have the time or the energy to exercise regularly or eat a well-balanced diet. The combination of a sub-par diet plan and deficient exercise program has also been proven to increase a person's risk for developing dementia.
What this means for caregivers
Sometimes, the best way to care for your loved one is to care for yourself.
The combination of the isolation and stress associated with being a caregiver can lead to more serious conditions like depression, a mental condition that increases your risk of developing dementia.
It is essential that you take a break from being a caregiver once in a while. Fight the urge to identify solely with your role as a spouse or loved one—just because you share an intimate bond with the elder you're caring for doesn't mean that you don't deserve a break.
Engaging in activities like yoga, exercise, hobbies, anything social, etc. will serve to rejuvenate your mind and stave off the depression and stress that can contribute to your risk of developing dementia.
Research has also pointed to the remarkable benefits that can be derived from caregiver support groups. Whether it is an in-person or online group, being able to share your trials and triumphs with a collection of caregivers who know where you are coming from is priceless.
For more information on caregiver support: