Many of us cope with the stress of caring for someone who has dementia. We agonize over the increasing losses that our loved one faces as dementia works its way through their brains. We also worry about ourselves. Will we, too, end our lives without recognizing the people we love? What, if anything, can we do to protect our own brains?
With this question in mind, I asked two brain experts for their input on how caregivers can practice self-care and reduce worry about their health—specifically their brain health.
What's good for the heart is good for the brain
First, I questioned Benjamin T. Mast, Ph.D., ABPP, who is a Board Certified Geropsychologist, for his thoughts. Dr. Mast is Associate Professor and Vice Chair of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Louisville, Kentucky. He offers these suggestions:
"Caregivers hoping to maintain brain health can focus on both behavioral and medical health," Dr. Mast says. "From a medical perspective, what is good for the heart is good for the brain. Maintaining good cardiovascular health is critical to brain health.
"Eating a heart healthy diet, and engaging in regular exercise and physical activity are basic steps that can be taken. Caregivers with high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol and heart disease should follow the treatment regimens offered by their physicians. Poor management of these medical conditions puts the brain and cognition at risk.
"From a behavioral perspective, staying cognitively and socially engaged are also associated with brain health. Caregivers should find cognitively stimulating activities that they enjoy. Not everyone needs to do crossword puzzles and Sudoku, especially if they don't enjoy them. Finding activities that you enjoy and keep you mentally active is a much better bet."
Can caregiving give you dementia?
I also asked Dr. Mast about a common concern we caregivers face—the worry that our brains are "going" and wondering if it's early dementia or simply stress. His response was comforting:
"Many times people will experience forgetfulness and mental ‘fogginess' simply because they are feeling very stressed, overwhelmed and are keeping track of too many things at once," he said. "For these caregivers, the recommendation, in addition to those above, would be to find ways to lower stress and reduce multitasking. This is obviously a major challenge for family caregivers who carry both high levels of stress and a multitude of responsibilities. This one way in which staying socially engaged is key. All caregivers need support from other people, both in terms of physical help and in terms of emotional support to help them through a very difficult time."
(Learn more: 6 Surprising Ways to Instantly Lower Stress)
Tips for a healthy brain
After thanking Dr. Mast for his wise consultation, I sought a global take on the issue of better brain health. Fortunately, Dr. Christopher Williams, Senior Clinical Neuropsychologist for Brisbane South Community Dementia Service in Cleveland, Australia was willing to offer us his tips for caregivers who are worried about their brain health.
"Breathe," he says. "Take a deep breath. Now, take another deep breath! Stress is a very natural, helpful response in humans. However, excessive stress over long periods can also be harmful to the health of your brain and body.
"There are many ways to manage stress, including regular exercise, social activity, using relaxation techniques and having a hobby. However, the most immediately effective way to control stress is also the simplest: just take a few deep breaths. Why? Well, without going into the nitty-gritty of it, deep breathing effectively overrides our body's stress reaction by releasing various chemicals that inhibit the production of adrenaline, slow our heart rate, reduce our blood pressure, encourage healthy digestion and effectively force us into relaxation mode. It's such a simple and effective little trick.
"I employ this strategy quite often with my patients, when they start to panic on a memory test. Just one or two slow, deep breaths and the transformation is remarkable."
"The most significant risk factor for dementia is also the most controllable: your health," Dr. Williams continues. "Brain health and physical health are not mutually exclusive, and the way we live our everyday lives tends to affect both equally.
"In fact, I can't think of any lifestyle factors that affect one without affecting the other. This is largely because your brain is full of blood vessels, just like your body, and relies on a steady flow of blood (full of oxygen and nutrients) and good heart health in order to function.
"Therefore, maintaining a healthy lifestyle is essential for maintaining or improving brain health. Exercise, diet, smoking, alcohol consumption, medications and stress are all important factors in brain health. Moreover, improving your health will reduce your stress levels and leave you feeling more capable, physically and emotionally, of caring for your loved one."
Dr. Williams' brain health tips for caregivers:
- Find ways to exercise. Try to exercise with the person you are caring for—they need it too. (Discover: The Key to Enhancing Exercise Motivation)
- You need to eat nutritiously. But that doesn't mean it has to be complicated. Try eating simpler meals like meat or baked fish with vegetables; find simple recipes, as long as they don't contain a lot of processed food; and seek a consultation with a dietician if you need any specific advice or if you're concerned about your nutrition.
- Keep up your social life and maintain relationships. If you don't have the time or freedom to get out to socialize, try making use of technology such as Skype, email, Facebook, or a good ol' phone call, to get in touch with people.
- Go see your doctor. One of the worst mistakes a busy, stressed caregiver can make is to put aside their own health needs and concerns. If you're one of these people, please keep in mind that if you break down, so does your ability to care. You can't provide care from a hospital bed!
- Take time to look after yourself. Ok, you're busy, I get that. You're caring for a person who you love dearly and who is dependent on you. But here's the thing: if you aren't looking after yourself, you may not be providing the best possible care for your loved one. If you find that you are constantly stressed, you really need to find ways to manage that stress, and that usually means finding more time to exercise, socialize and relax. For some caregivers, it might not be possible to find that time, but most caregivers will have access to a formal service that can provide in-home respite, and/or family members and friends who can help out, freeing you up for some much needed R&R. Take advantage of whatever assistance is available. You deserve it!
As a long-time caregiver, I know how hard it can be to follow the advice that these physicians have shared with us. However, I also know the toll that stress can take on our bodies and our minds. As both doctors mentioned, what's good for our body is good for our brain. Even if we put into practice just a few of the tips mentioned above, we should be healthier overall.