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While You Were Helping

At age 50, Betty Suitt was an active businesswoman who loved to travel and go to the theater. But when her mother became ill, she shelved her typical day-to-day. "I only had time to work and take care of Mom," says Suitt, of Columbia, MD. When the stress gave her heartburn, she wasn't surprised. But getting it checked out was at the bottom of her to-do list, even when her over-the-counter pills stopped working. She suffered for a year before she saw her doctor—and was diagnosed with Barrett's esophagus, a precancerous change to the lining of her throat linked to unchecked gastric reflux.

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More than 2.5 million caregivers in the United States are in fair or poor health, according to the National Alliance for Caregiving and the AARP. An estimated 80% of those in this role are on the job for 4 1/2 years, on average. The demands can cause them to neglect their health and suffer changes that increase the risk of heart disease, depression, and other ills. Protect yourself as you look after others: 

GET AN EDGE AGAINST ILLNESS
Caregivers' immune systems are 15% weaker than in those who don't shoulder that responsibility, according to a review of 23 studies on older adults. "Long-term stress suppresses cells' abilities to fend off viruses and get rid of tumors," says lead author Peter Vitaliano, PhD, of the University of Washington. Over time, you're more susceptible to everything from colds to cancer. You may also have a fourfold increase in interleukin-6 (IL-6), an immune protein associated with osteoporosis, arthritis, and frailty.

Care for yourself by… Getting a flu shot every fall and asking your doctor about the pneumonia vaccine. And keep moving: Exercise and a healthy weight help reduce IL-6. Try walking for 30 minutes daily. 

GIVE YOUR HEART A BREAK
Women who tend to an ill spouse for 9 hours a day almost double their risk of cardiovascular disease, notes a Harvard University study. Other research shows that caregivers are 63% more likely to die from the condition than others of the same age. The body reacts to constant mental strain by increasing levels of adrenaline and cortisol by 20% or more; these hormones contribute to hypertension and high blood sugar, both of which can lead to hardening of the arteries, says Vitaliano. Chronic stress also increases inflammation and plaque, creating the perfect storm for a stroke or heart attack. 

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More from Prevention:Resources For Caregivers

Care for yourself by…Eating a low-fat diet full of potassium-rich foods, such as bananas and avocados. "This nutrient increases flexibility within blood vessels, which helps lower blood pressure," says Nieca Goldberg, MD, medical director of the Women's Heart Program at New York University. Try meditation, too. Studies show it can decrease cortisol levels and reduce risk of a fatal heart attack by 30%. Aim to be active most days of the week, as well. 

GET REACQUAINTED WITH YOUR DOCTOR
A stunning 75% of care-givers who say their role has damaged their health also report that they aren't seeing their doctors as often as they should, and 50% have missed scheduled appointments. Catching problems early, when they're the most treatable, isn't possible without regular visits to your physician. Women age 50 or older who get a yearly mammogram, for example, reduce their risk of dying of breast cancer by 35%—but more than 1 in 5 female caregivers say they skip this vital test.

Care for yourself by… Squeezing in a visit. Take your doctor's first appointment of the day or choose a time midweek—offices tend to be less busy then. So the date doesn't slip your mind, sign up for a free personalized calendar at google.com/calendar and set an automatic reminder that can be sent via e-mail or cell phone. If leaving the house seems impossible, find a multispecialty practice so that you can see a physician the same day you bring your loved one in for a checkup. 

WATCH YOUR MENTAL HEALTH
The constant stress of caring for another can produce an imbalance of certain chemical messengers in your brain, putting you at greater risk of depression. To make matters worse, people juggling job, home, and caregiving often give short shrift to proper eating, sleeping, and exercising habits, which can make depression worse, warns Carol Musil, PhD, author of several related studies. 

Care for yourself by… Noting the following, which can signal depression: A marked increase or decrease in appetite, constant fatigue, lack of interest in things you once loved, and feelings of hopelessness.





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Date: 10.12.2018, 10:55 / Views: 93245