Caregivers Can Lower Heart Disease Risk with Pleasurable Activities

Caregivers are individuals who are responsible for the physical well-being of a family member. Caregivers in general are more likely to experience increased stress than noncaregivers. But for those who care for a loved one with Alzheimer’s, heart disease and depression are two main concerns. Previous research has shown that depression can put people at risk for cardiovascular disease (CVD), including caregivers, as measured by their sympathetic nervous system. Specifically, researchers can use a noninvasive technique called brachial artery flow-mediated dilation (FMD) to evaluate the lining of the heart. Studies that have used this method have shown that the bidirectional relationship between stress and depression in caregivers increases their risk for CVD. But few studies have looked at which factors specifically led to the depressive symptoms or elevated stress. Therefore, Brent T. Mausbach of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Diego at La Jolla recently conducted a study that examined the levels of depression and stress in 116 elderly caregivers. Using the FMD technique, Mausbach evaluated the participants, all of whom cared for a spouse with Alzheimer’s, three times over one year. He also measured their negative and positive affect and recorded how much leisure activity they engaged in.

The study revealed that the caregivers who participated in leisure activities had lower levels of stress than those who did not. Mausbach also found that depression did not significantly affect FMD, suggesting that the pathway by which CVD risk is increased is through stress that is independent of depressive symptoms. Although more than one-third of the caregivers did exhibit clinical levels of depression, Mausbach believes it is the lack of leisure activity, perhaps resulting from the guilt associated with depression, that leads to negative affect and increased stress in the caregivers. Mausbach also noted that the link between depression and FMD was much weaker in his sample of non-CVD participants than has been found in general population individuals with CVD. These findings demonstrate that caregivers should be engaged in activities that increase their positive affect in order to protect themselves from the risk of depression, stress, and even CVD. Mausbach hopes these results will help clinicians design focused treatments for caregivers. He added, “In particular, therapies that emphasize engagement in enjoyable activities may be associated with better FMD over time.”

Mausbach, B. T., Chattillion, E., Roepke, S. K., Ziegler, M. G., Milic, M., von Känel, R., et al. (2012). A longitudinal analysis of the relations among stress, depressive symptoms, leisure satisfaction, and endothelial function in caregivers. Health Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0027783

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  • Jamal


    May 3rd, 2012 at 4:14 AM

    One of the most difficult thinkgs about being a caregiver for another person is that you take so little time for yourself. But sometimes the only real way to stay sane when you have to give so much to another person is to step back and take a little time for you. Not easy to do, I know, but so critical for your own well being.

  • Mary Ellen

    Mary Ellen

    May 3rd, 2012 at 11:22 AM

    I did not realize that caring for another person could actually be detrimental to your own health. I have never been in a situation where I have had to take care of someone who could not care for himself other than when I had my babies. I guess that that role is very different from being the caregiver to an adult that you have been accusti=omed as seeing as so able and strong and now they have been reduced to a state to where someone has to tend to all of their needs. I guess that when the time comes I know I will need to step up and do that for my own parents as they did for me, but that would be a very hard role to adjust to.

  • Josephine


    May 4th, 2012 at 11:42 AM

    Some of us don’t have much of a choice when it comes to taking care of a family member who needs it. I am the oldest and therefore have been responsible for both of my parents for a long time now. Truth be told they probably would be better served in a nursing home but that is not what they want, so I make the hard decision to keep them with me. I don’t think that you can ever know what this is like until you have to do it, and then you loom around and wonder who the people are who are having to do this day in and day out. I never have any time to myself to do anything that I would enjoy, and in fact I am not sure that I would even know what that would be if I had time to do it. But I know this is my choice and I have made it and I have to live with that. I think of all that they did for me and it makes me sick to think of moving them if that is not their wish. I simply want to allow them to live the rest of their days in comfort and peace and that is what I try to give to them.

  • natalie


    May 4th, 2012 at 7:41 PM

    have always wondered-are the stress and problems in people a result of caregiving or because of the things they tend to do then? I think it’s the latter n hence an opportunity to fix it too.

  • riley


    May 5th, 2012 at 7:27 AM

    What would be great would be if there was a way for them to integrate the job of taking care of someone with that activity, say taking them for a walk or doing something that they both love together. I do realize that in some cases this may not be possible but surely there are some that could do this.

  • mary webb

    mary webb

    May 5th, 2012 at 1:18 PM

    Josephine, your post was so touching. I know it is very hard to be doing what you are for your parents. Maybe if you could get someone to come in (another family member) or even a home health nurse to give you a break once a week so you can get out for awhile. You are a very special person to be doing what you are.

  • Josephine


    May 6th, 2012 at 12:56 PM

    Thanks @ mary webb. I do it because that’s what I was taught to do by them, so I suppose it is all that circle of life. And in many ways I am so thankful that they gave me this kind of background, but you are right, there are days when it is absolutely overwhelming and I just want to collapse myself. But I know I can’t. I have thought about calling long term hospice, because you know now they don’t have to be imminently on death’s door for hospice to get involved, but I am afraid my parents would learn it was hospice and it would scare them. We do have an aide who comes out a few times a week for a few hours and that gives me a small break, but most of the time I sit around worrying and feel like it’s really not a break at all. I am sure I have some control issues too, but they’re my parents and I want the best possible for them, you know?

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