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A 2003 study of caregivers by a research team at Ohio State University has proven the off-repeated adage “stress can kill you” is true. The focus of the investigation was the effect the stress of caregiving had on caregivers. The team, led by Dr. Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, reports on a 6-year study of elderly people caring for spouses with Alzheimer’s Disease. The study not only found a significant deterioration in the health of caregivers when compared to a similar group of non-caregivers but also found the caregivers had a 63% higher death rate than the control group.

Stress produces real physical changes. In some unknown way the fears in our mind, both conscious and unconscious, cause the hypothalamus and pituitary glands, deep in our brain, to initiate a cascade of hormones and immune system proteins that temporarily alter our physical body. This is a normal human physiological response inherent to the human body when a threat is perceived–real or not. It is often called the “fight-or-flight response” or the “stress response”. The purpose is to give us clearer thought and increased strength as well as to activate the immune system to deal with potential injury and to repair potential wounds. When the perceived threat is removed, assuming no damage is done, the body returns to normal.

In the aforementioned study the Ohio State University team found a chemical marker in the blood that shows a significant increase under chronic stress and is linked to an impaired immune system response in aging adults. With the caregivers, the team found a four-fold increase in an immune system protein — interleukin 6 (IL-6) — as compared to an identically matched control group of non-caregivers. Only the stress of caregiving correlated to the marked increase of IL-6 in the caregiver group. All other factors, including age, were not significant to the outcome. Even the younger caregivers saw an increase in IL-6. Another surprising result was that high levels of IL-6 continued even three years after the caregiving stopped. Dr. Glaser proposes the prolonged stress may have triggered a permanent abnormality of the immune system.

IL-6 is released when the brain signals a person is threatened with harm, injury, undue mental or physical stress or death. The hormones prepare the body to react quickly by increasing heart rate, making muscles more reactive, stimulating thought, altering sugar metabolism and producing many more changes that result in the “rush” people experience when they think they may be harmed.

This response to harm — either real or perceived — is an important and beneficial life-saving activity of a normally functioning body. The problem is if this response is initiated over and over again, frequently, and over a long period; it can have a dangerous effect on the body. This constant initiation of the stress response is common among caregivers — especially those caring for loved ones with dementia. Providing supervision or physical assistance many hours a week and over a period of years turns out to be extremely stressful. This type of stress is often unrelenting, occurring day after day and week after week. And the long-term effects of this stress are more pronounced in middle-aged and older people who are precisely the group most likely offering long term care to loved ones.

In most younger people, when the threat lessens or disappears, the body reacts fairly quickly to shut down the stress response and return things to normal. But numerous studies have shown, as people age, the chemical cascade from stress lingers. Over a period of time, this constant chemical stimulus impairs the immune system and results in early aging, development of debilitating disease and early death. In this altered state, the body maintains high, potentially harmful levels of IL-6. The body does not return to normal without intervention.

Prolonged high levels of IL-6 and the accompanying hormones and cytokines have been linked to: cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes, frequent viral infections, intestinal, stomach and colon disorders, osteoporosis, periodontal disease, various cancers and auto immune disorders such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis. Alzheimer’s, dementia, nerve damage and mental problems are also linked to high IL-6. Wounds heal slower, vaccinations are less likely to take and recovery from infectious disease is impaired. People who have depression also have high levels of IL-6. Depression in caregivers is about 8 times higher than the non-cargiving population.

Those who find themselves in the role of caregiver are encouraged to find ways to reduce stress. Over the next few blogs we will discuss ways of reducing caregiver stress.

Idaho Estate Planning is part of the Treasure Valley Care Planning Council, a non-profit network of elder care professionals available to provide information beyond the items discussed above. Let us know your concerns and we will help you find the resources you need.

In addition to caring for your parents or other family members, it is also important to consider your own concerns for the future. How will you maintain your independence as you grow older? What effect would a costly health issue have on your quality of life? The more planning you do now the less difficulty there will be later. Good planning is no accident.