Female caregivers shouldn’t overlook their own heart health

June 12, 2014 in Family Caregiving  •  By Miles Varn
Cardiovascular risks may be particularly high among female caregivers.

If you’re a woman caring for an ailing loved one, you can count yourself among the 44 million American adults who play this role. Caring for an ailing loved one can be a difficult and time-consuming job, and include a wide range of tasks, from helping them dress, eat and use the bathroom, to taking them to doctors’ appointments, helping them take medications, encouraging them to engage in fitness routines and more.

While this is all invaluable for those receiving care, caregivers can’t afford to neglect their own health. This is especially important because certain serious health problems, such as heart disease, are easy to overlook or misdiagnose in women. When caregivers don’t focus on their own health, they can become seriously ill or disabled, which also negatively impacts their children, spouse and others who rely on them. If you’re in poor health, you’re no longer in a position to support your loved ones.

Know the signs of heart disease
As much as you may want to provide all the care that your loved one needs, it’s important to acknowledge that you can’t do it without support. Otherwise, you could overtax your physical, emotional and mental health.

The stress of caregiving can have a negative effect on the health of your heart. The likelihood of high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol among women is elevated for those who act as caregivers. Studies have also found that women who spend nine to 10 hours a week tending to an ailing spouse have double the risk of developing heart disease compared to women who do not have this responsibility.

Further compounding cardiovascular risks for female caregivers is the stress associated with this role. Negative coping behaviors – including smoking, alcohol abuse and unhealthy food – can cause additional harm to the heart.

Part of what makes heart disease so dangerous for women is that the condition can look very different than it does in men. For example, both men and women may experience pain or pressure in the chest during a heart attack, but this symptom doesn’t always appear among women. Instead, female patients may be more likely to experience

  • shortness of breath
  • pain in the lower chest or abdomen
  • dizziness
  • fainting
  • fatigue
  • pressure in the upper back.

Women may dismiss these symptoms if they mistake them for the flu or other common illness. Unfortunately, untreated heart disease and other neglected conditions may lead caregivers to sacrifice more than they intended. The stress-related mortality rate among spousal caregivers aged 66 to 96 years is 63 percent higher than it is for people who are the same age and don’t play this role.

If you’re a caregiver who’s concerned about adequately meeting both your health needs and those of your loved one, there are a range of resources that you can tap. Start by talking to your physician about your individual cardiovascular risks, appropriate heart health screenings, mental health and stress management strategies, and the best strategy for protecting your own health while caring for a loved one.