Anger, guilt, worry and jealousy; a quartet of traits often experienced multiple times during different phases of the caregiver's journey.
But women for whom these so-called "neurotic" traits are the norm in middle age may find that their risk for developing Alzheimer's disease—the most common form of dementia—has doubled, according to the results of a four-decade long study published in the journal "Neurology."
Researchers from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden tracked a group of 800 women, with an average age of 46 at the beginning of the study) for 38 years. Each woman's personality, memory and stress levels were tested periodically throughout the study. In the end, those women who tended to be more neurotic or introverted and who experienced prolonged periods of stress (at least one month long) were far more likely to encounter cognitive issues as they aged.
This doesn't mean that all worrywarts will inevitably develop dementia, the study authors emphasize. It does, however, highlight the profound impact that a person's response to life's stressors can have on their brain health.
"Personality has long been recognized as important in Alzheimer's disease (AD)," remarks Dr. Robert Stewart, a professor at the King's College London Institute of Psychiatry in an accompanying editorial. But most Alzheimer's experts focus on how an individual's personality beings to change once they show signs of the disease, as opposed to how certain preexisting character aspects can influence a person's chances of developing dementia in the first place. "These findings are consistent with a broader truth that people who are more exposed (or more vulnerable) to the vicissitudes of life may also be less likely to ‘age well,'" says Stewart.
The importance of effectively managing stress has been cited by medical professionals for years, but for those who are trying to juggle the needs of an aging adult with the needs of their family and themselves, stress seems like an inevitable symptom of the caregiver's situation.
"As we deal with the day-to-day ups and downs of our loved ones, the tension begins to build," says Marlis Powers, AgingCare.com Blogger and caregiver to a husband with dementia. "There are days when we all want to scream, ignore, tear our hair out, or just get up and walk away—for an hour, a day, a week, forever."
You may not be able to override your penchant for worry or angst over your caregiving situation, but you must find ways to release the pressure valve once in a while. The problem is, because we're all unique, the stress reduction strategy that works perfectly for one person might be completely ineffective for another.
Journaling offers Marlis some much-needed solace and relief. On the AgingCare.com community forum, other caregivers share their go-to stress relievers:
- "I have gotten into the habit of starting my day with a delicious cup of coffee (with Bailey's creamer—yum!)."
- "Tending to my plants—I enjoy seeing them thrive."
- "I plan errands, shopping and appointments so that I can make one round trip and get it all done. I try to keep the weekends free to do whatever I want, whenever I want."
- "Sleeping, going for a walk, reading, buying a lottery ticket, baking, even just looking up at the stars…"
- "I love walks in nature and they always help to bring me back to center."
- "My husband and I have set aside Saturdays as our ‘date day' and we leave the house for several hours."
- "My friend gave me a great suggestion. Buy a bag of small potatoes. Whenever you have an angry thought or get upset, pick out a potato, squeeze and throw it as hard as you can at a target, or in the woods nearby. Keep on doing that until you feel better."
Ultimately, it's essential to keep one thing in mind, according to Marlis: "You, the caregiver, are the most important part of this equation. Without you the patient will either end up in a nursing home or in his final resting place. Do whatever it takes to find yourself some moments of sanity."