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During the past few years, researchers have learned much about how caregiving impacts the health of caregivers. One important finding: Caregivers may be at higher risk of Alzheimer's disease, stroke and other conditions that affect the brain. With this in mind, family caregivers should be aware of brain health challenges they may face:
1. Getting Enough Sleep
As they strive to balance caregiving tasks with family and work responsibilities, family caregivers often have less time for sleep. When they finally go to bed, they might toss and turn as they worry about their loved one's well-being, or sleep lightly so they can listen out in case their loved one needs assistance. And the sleep disturbances that are common in Alzheimer's disease can wreak havoc with a caregiver's rest.
How sleep protects the brain: Neurologists and sleep experts tell us that good-quality sleep lowers the risk of dementia in several ways. Harmful waste products are removed from the brain while we sleep. Good sleep is vital for processing and acquiring long-term memories. And poor sleep is associated with the loss of brain cells.
What caregivers can do: Make sleep time a priority. Talk to your healthcare provider if you are having problems getting to sleep or staying asleep. If your loved one is waking you up at night, talk to the doctor about ways to manage this, and look into respite care options.
2. Getting Enough Exercise
While family caregivers may feel like they are on the move every second of the day, they most likely are not getting an adequate amount of exercise.
How exercise protects the brain: Most of us know that exercise is important to keep our muscles strong and our joints supple. Exercise keeps our brains strong and "supple" as well! Physical activity increases blood to the brain and stimulates the brain's ability to make the connections that are necessary for memory health.
What caregivers can do: When you find yourself with some spare time, it might be tempting to lounge on the couch watching TV. But exercising is a better choice. You might go out for a brisk walk on a moment's notice if the weather allows. If it's raining or it's hard for you to leave your loved one, work out with an exercise video. Recent studies show that it's fine to break your exercise routine up into several periods throughout the day. Talk to your healthcare provider about an activity program that's right for you.
3. Regular Healthcare Appointments
Family caregivers often find themselves spending a lot of time at doctor appointments—but not their own. It's such a common pattern: Caregivers transport their loved ones to the doctor and help their loved one manage medications and treatments. But when was their own last checkup? Years ago! There just wasn't enough time, they say.
How overall wellness protects the brain: We used to think of the mind and body as separate, but neurologists now tell us that brain health is affected by conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity, high cholesterol, hypertension, and even hearing and vision loss and dental problems. Caregiving can leave us more vulnerable to illnesses that in turn make us vulnerable to memory loss.
What caregivers can do: Follow your healthcare provider's recommended schedule for checkups and preventive care, and if you suspect a health problem, don't wait too long to have it checked out.
4. Eating a Healthy Diet
Family caregivers know that their loved one needs to eat healthy meals. Do they follow this practice themselves? Not always.
How good nutrition protects the brain: Some foods—fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats—have been shown to promote brain health. Other foods—unhealthy fats, refined carbohydrates and sugar—may raise the risk of dementia. Good nutrition supports overall health, which protects the brain.
What caregivers can do: Give yourself the same advice you might give your loved one! Fill your refrigerator and cabinets with healthy foods. Avoid processed foods, fast foods and empty calories. Busy caregivers are likely to snack rather than prepare a meal, so have healthy snacks on hand. Practice portion control to maintain a healthy weight.
5. Staying Mentally and Socially Active
At first you might think this wouldn't be a challenge at all! Caregivers are busy people, making calls, managing their loved one's care, running back and forth between caregiving and their other responsibilities. And they shouldn't feel lonely—they spend plenty of time with their loved one, right? It's not that simple.
How intellectual stimulation and social engagement protect the brain: We're learning more and more about the importance of exercising our brains. "Use it or lose it" holds true here! It's important to take part in a variety of activities that challenge our minds. Part of this is spending time with others, which reduces stress and protects against memory loss.
What caregivers can do: While some family caregivers feel guilty if they don't spend every spare moment with their loved one, it's actually healthier for both to socialize with a variety of people. Locate appropriate activities for your loved one, out of the home or with the assistance of volunteers or professional in-home caregivers. Meanwhile, make time for your own mentally stimulating pleasures. Go to museums, work crossword puzzles, take a class, or play an instrument. Many caregivers find that support groups are a meaningful social opportunity. Many lifelong friendships have begun in that setting.
Finding the Time
Family caregivers might scoff at all the above suggestions. Where would they find time to exercise, to take a class, to prepare nutritious meals? If your caregiving role is of limited duration—perhaps a loved one recovering from hip replacement surgery, or a mild stroke where full recovery is expected—make it a priority to take time for yourself as the opportunity arises. But if your caregiving role is or probably will be of longer duration, you need to make a plan. Ask family and friends to help. Could they stay with your loved one for a few hours each week? Could your siblings or other family members help with the costs of in-home care? Let people know that you are taking steps to protect your own health, not only for yourself, but for your loved one's well-being.
Studies show that following a brain-protective lifestyle really works. It even may be bringing down the rate of Alzheimer's disease in the U.S.! Read Online Buzz: U.S. Alzheimer's Rate Is Declining in this issue of Caring Right at Home to learn more.
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