Jan. 14, 2010 -- Caregivers who find their responsibilities highly stressful may be at increased risk for stroke, according to a new study.
The study, published in the journal Stroke, looked at 767 people who provide in-home care for an ailing spouse.
Those caregivers who said tending to their ailing spouse caused "a lot of strain" were 23% more likely to have a stroke compared with their caregiving counterparts who said they felt no strain regarding their responsibilities.
Stroke risk was most pronounced among men, especially African-American men, the study shows. While men were less likely to report high strain than women, those that reported high strain were at elevated risk for stroke.
Caregiver strain did not affect risk of heart disease in the new study. Previous studies have shown that caregiver stress can increase risk of depression and early death, but exactly how caregiving stress affects stroke risk, and why it doesn't seem to affect heart disease risk, is not fully understood.
"Highly stressful caregiving can be chronic and include many difficult and uncontrollable stressors such as witnessing the suffering of a loved one, managing stressful behavior problems, financial strain, social isolation, and providing physically and psychologically demanding personal care tasks,"
write the researchers, who were led by William E. Haley, PhD of the University of South Florida in Tampa. "Caregiving strain can also interfere with other health behaviors such as exercising and getting proper rest."
This is why caring for the caregiver becomes extremely important, Haley tells WebMD.
"One important kind of assistance is counseling, where the caregiver can learn new information and skills to help them be better prepared to manage their family member's illness and their own stress," he says. "Another kind of assistance is receiving more help in providing care from other family members, friends, or community agencies, or using respite care services."
This can make a big difference as many caregivers shoulder all of the responsibility themselves. "Some caregivers also benefit from going to support groups," he says. "Overall, research shows that caregivers benefit from programs that help them learn ways to feel better prepared to take care of their relative, to manage their own stress, and to get more day to day help in providing care."