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Caregivers Often Neglect Their Health

National Study Shows High Rates of Fatigue and Depression
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Sept. 26, 2006 -- The stress of caring for a chronically ill loved one is jeopardizing the health of millions of Americans, new research shows.

Because of the responsibilities associated with caregiving, many caregivers are at high risk of exhaustion and depression, poor eating and exercise habits, and increased use of medications and alcohol, researchers say. They may feel so overwhelmed that they skip regular doctor and dentist appointments even though their own health is deteriorating.

"They can become more ill than the person they're caring for," says Sherri Snelling, director of Caregiving Services for Evercare, a health-plan company that co-sponsored the study with the National Alliance for Caregiving.

They released "The Evercare Study of Caregivers in Decline: A Close-Up Look at the Health Risks of Caring for a Loved One" today.

Building on Previous Research

Evercare was prompted to research the health woes of caregivers after a 2004 study by the AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving showed that an estimated 2.5 million of the nation's 44 million caregivers are in fair or poor health.

So the new study surveyed a national sample of 528 caregivers in fair or poor health, and who reported that their health worsened due to their caregiving. They designed the study to specifically determine how caregiving is affecting their health. Nearly 40% of them said they spent more than 40 hours a week on caregiving while an additional 30% reported 20 hours to 39 hours.

Nearly nine in 10 of the caregivers were women. Their average age was 47. Most of them were not working, and most had an annual household income of less than $50,000.

'Alarming' Effects on Health

"What jumped off the page for me was the extraordinarily high prevalence of depression," says John Mach, MD, Evercare's CEO. The study showed that 91% of the caregivers had depression and that 81% of those said caregiving had made their depression worse.

Other common complaints included lack of sleep or energy (87%), aches and pains (60%), and physical ailments, such as high blood pressure, arthritisflare-ups, and heart attack scares.

Although the caregivers were aware of a downward spiral in their health status, nearly three-quarters of them said they weren't seeing their doctor or dentist as often as they should and half of them reporting missing doctor's appointments. More than one in five of the women said they were getting mammograms less often and a similar proportion of men said they weren't up to date on prostate exams.

About half of the caregivers reported increased medication use, and one in 10 said they were misusing prescription drugs or alcohol to cope with stress.

"This is alarming," Snelling says. "On average, caregivers spend four and a half years in a caregiving situation. We don't want to see ourselves in a public health crisis because caregivers are not taking care of themselves."

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