February is American Heart Month, making it a good time to look at the importance of senior heart health. It’s also a chance to understand how the stress of caregiving—if not recognized and addressed—can harm the heart, as well as lead to other serious health problems.
According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. One in four people die of it each year. And prolonged stress is often what sets the wheels in motion. But there are steps you can take if you are a caregiver to manage stress in healthy ways.
Heart health for seniors: why you don't want to miss a beat
A healthy heart is necessary for overall well-being. To really understand why keeping the heart healthy is so important, it helps to have some basic knowledge of how our bodies work.
The heart is a muscle that has several functions. It circulates blood around the body supplying oxygen and nutrients (only takes about 60 seconds to pump blood to every cell in the body—vital for keeping a human being alive). The right side of your heart receives blood from the body and pumps it to the lungs. The left side of the heart receives blood from the lungs and pumps it out to the body. The heart also carries away waste. According to Harvard Health, the heart beats about 2.5 billion times over the average lifetime, pushing millions of gallons of blood to every part of the body.
To ensure an adequate blood supply around your body, the four chambers of your heart must pump regularly and in the right sequence. Blood pressure—the pressure within the arteries—plays a major role in this, and in overall heart health for seniors.
Heart health for seniors: the damage of chronic stress
Life can be stressful. Some stress is actually good for us. For example, moderate stress stimulates the production of chemicals called interleukins which gives the immune system a quick boost to protect against illnesses. It can even strengthen the connection between neurons in your brain and improve your attention span. This type of “positive” stress can occur when you’re riding a roller coaster or facing an urgent deadline. It isn’t harmful because the source of stress is short-lived.
But stress that has no foreseeable end has different consequences. It causes your body to release adrenaline and cortisol and hold on to it. As a result, cells in the body weaken and open the door to difficulties like stroke, high blood pressure, and heart attack. In addition, it’s not uncommon for a person in an ongoing stress mode to try and cope by overeating, smoking, drinking too much and ceasing to exercise—all of which can increase the risk of heart disease.
Caregivers can be especially susceptible to chronic stress—and to heart disease
Caregivers often are carrying the bulk of responsibility when watching over an older loved one. This means prolonged exposure to stress which can keep blood pressure high and become a risk factor of stroke or cardiac arrest. In addition, female caregivers are more likely to suffer from depression, another risk factor for heart disease. Poor eating habits, whether eating high-calorie, unhealthy foods, or overeating in general, can lead to obesity which in turn can increase the probability for stroke, diabetes and other problems that affect heart health for seniors.
And there are other effects of caregiving that can eventually manifest themselves physically that must be considered. For example:
- Many caregivers report back pain and other muscle sprains from trying to safely move and transport their loved one.
- Caregivers often devote so much of their time to taking a loved one to a physician or therapist that they put aside their own medical needs and stop seeing a physician regularly.
- Caregivers may often miss work, or regular get-togethers with family or friends, so the stress continues to build.
Heart health for seniors: strategies for caregivers
Take some time, take a breath, and take steps to help yourself and you will not only be helping yourself, but you will also be helping your loved one as well. Here are some suggestions.
- Focus on your needs and value yourself. Try to occasionally consider your needs first and recognize when you need to rest or step away. You can’t take care of anyone when you are completely depleted.
- Accept help when it’s offered. Even the smallest tasks can be shared.
- Connect with others dealing with the same issues. Sometimes just being able to share your experiences can do wonders for your emotional and mental outlook.
- Give yourself credit. If you’re a primary caregiver, you’re doing a very important job. You know when you’ve done your best. Let it be enough.
- Get some sleep. Stress can make it harder to sleep, and lack of sleep can heighten stress. It can be a frustrating cycle. Find ways to schedule a nap when you need one.
- Access resources. Gathering information about how to handle the challenges of caregiving can be very helpful. Some additional resources include: National Institute on Aging, Alzheimers.gov and The National Alliance for Caregiving.
- Consider a permanent option. Senior living communities provide care and support for your loved one as needed with trained staff available 24/7, access to programs and amenities, nutritious meals, and a comfortable residence that feels like home.
- Consider respite care or a short-term stay. Everyone needs a break now and then. And remember, not only do you, as a caregiver need some time to recharge, your loved one might also benefit from a change of scene and the opportunity to make new friends and have new experiences. That’s where respite or a short-term stay in a senior living community can be a good choice.
Heart health for seniors gets a lot of attention in February, but it calls for attention every day of the year. Whether you are a caregiver or just interested in living as healthy a life as possible, you can take the first steps today.