New Survey Links Caregiver Stress to Unhealthy Behaviors & Chronic Disease

Caregiver Stress Linked to Unhealthy Behaviors & Chronic DiseaseThe American Psychological Association (APA) has released the updated results of its latest Stress in America™ survey. “Data from the latest Stress in America survey suggest that the concern about stress and health is especially critical among adults 50 and older who serve as caregivers for a family member and those who have been diagnosed with obesity and/or depression,” the APA reported.

“Findings from the latest Stress in America survey show those who serve as caregivers — providing care to both the aging and chronically ill — for their family members report higher levels of stress, poorer health and a greater tendency to engage in unhealthy behaviors to alleviate that stress than the population at large,” the APA wrote. “What’s more, while lower stress levels are often associated with older adults, those older adults with caregiving responsibilities report more stress and poorer physical health than their peers.”

This is particularly troubling, given that the number of older Americans in the U.S. — persons 65 years or older — is expected to nearly double by the year 2030, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration on Aging.

“The nation is bracing for the impact of providing health care services to these 72 million adults, but what may be lacking is concern about the impact on caregivers,” the APA said.

Already 65.7 million Americans served as caregivers for an ill or disabled relative in the past year, according to estimates from the National Alliance for Caregiving.

“While caregiver roles may vary, the impact of stress on such a large percentage of the U.S. population is a health care concern worth noting,” the APA said. “In fact, research shows that family caregivers are at added risk for emotional and physical health problems. For example, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association, highly strained family caregivers are at risk for premature mortality.” “Other studies indicate that caregivers are at risk for increased mortality, coronary heart disease and stroke, particularly under conditions of high strain,” according to the APA.

The Report, Stress in America; Our Health At Risk, is available in PDF format on website of the American Psychological Association (APA).

Key Findings

Here are some of the key findings that the latest Stress in America survey revealed:

  • More than half (55 percent) of caregivers report that they feel overwhelmed by the amount of care their aging or chronically ill family member requires.
  • Caregivers are more likely than those in the general population to report they are doing a poor/fair job at several healthy behaviors, including managing stress (45 percent vs. 39 percent) and getting enough sleep (42 percent vs. 32 percent). And, due to the demands on their time, caregivers are less likely to engage in preventive health behaviors than non-caregivers.
  • Caregivers are more likely than those in the general population to report doing a poor/fair job in preventing themselves from experiencing stress (55 percent vs. 44 percent) and fully recovering after it occurs (39 percent vs. 31 percent).
  • Caregivers are not only more likely to report stress, but also report it at a higher level than is reported by the general public. On a scale of 1 to 10 where 1 is little or no stress and 10 is a great deal of stress, the mean level of stress reported by caregivers was 6.5 as compared to 5.2 by the general public.
  • Caregivers are more likely than the general public to say their stress has increased in the past 5 years (59 percent vs. 44 percent).
  • Caregivers are more likely to say that their health is fair or poor (34 percent vs. 20 percent) and are also significantly more likely to cite personal health concerns as a significant source of stress (66 percent vs. 53 percent).
  • Caregivers are more likely than those in the general population to have a chronic illness (82 percent vs. 61 percent). This trend carries through as caregivers and the general population age. Caregivers aged 50 and older are more likely than those in the same age bracket in the general population to report experiencing physical symptoms (92 percent vs. 70 percent, respectively) and non-physical symptoms (86 percent vs. 63 percent, respectively) of stress in the past month.
  • Caregivers report being in poorer health than the rest of the nation, with higher rates of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, overweight/obesity and depression. Research demonstrates that older adults in caregiver roles may be particularly vulnerable because caregiving demands may tax their health and physical abilities and compromise their immune response systems; similarly, the stress associated with caregiving can exacerbate existing chronic health conditions.
  • Caregivers are more likely to report experiencing physical (94 percent vs. 76 percent) and non-physical (91 percent vs. 71 percent) symptoms of stress when compared to the general population. In particular, caregivers are far more likely than the general population to lay awake at night (60 percent vs. 44 percent), overeat or eat unhealthy foods (53 percent vs. 39 percent) or skip a meal (48 percent vs. 29 percent) because of stress.
  • Caregivers are more likely than the general population to report that they get sick five times a year or more (17 percent vs. 6 percent).
  • Caregivers are more likely than those in the general population to report that they believe their stress has a strong/very strong impact on their body/physical health (47 percent vs. 37 percent).
  • Even younger caregivers, age 49 years and younger, were less likely than their counterparts in the general population to report that their overall health is excellent/very good (28 percent vs. 43 percent, respectively).

Solutions to Help Cope with Caregiving Stress

The American Psychological Association (APA) offers a program for its members called “COPE” (for “Creativity, Optimism, Planning, and Expert Information), which provides a template or “framework” for psychologists to use in helping family caregivers deal with the stress of caregiving and chronic illness.

According to the APA, the COPE framework is “designed to empower family caregivers by applying the principles of problem-solving training to problems and stressors experienced by the caregiver,” including the following:

  • Creativity: In generating solutions and coping options to problems encountered
  • Optimism: Essential for emotional regulation and maintaining a sense of competence
  • Planning: Following an orderly approach to identifying and solving problems
  • Expert Information: Essential for understanding aspects of the condition and care needs for the care recipient, as well as for understanding personal emotions and needs as a caregiver

According to the APA, the strategy of the COPE approach is to “teach family caregivers how to develop plans for coping with medical and psychosocial stress associated with family caregiving, as well as working in concert with healthcare professionals.”

The APA provides a Psychologist Locator tool on its website to help you find a Psychologist member of the APA in your area, who may be able to apply the principles of the COPE strategy to help family caregivers deal with the stress of caregiving.

More Information

Read the Report, Stress in America; Our Health At Risk (PDF), from the American Psychological Association (APA).

More information about the latest Stress in America™ survey, as well as a section called Caregiver Briefcase, providing information and resources to help psychologists and other health professionals assist family caregivers, are found on the website of the American Psychological Association (APA).

See also the HelpingYouCare™ resource pages on OurTimeForCare™ – Caregiver Self-Care, Stress Management, Inspiration & Humor, including:

And, see the HelpingYouCare™ resource pages on Wellness/ Healthy Living for Seniors & Caregivers, including:

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Copyright © 2012 Care-Help LLC, publisher of HelpingYouCare™.

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