Why Caregiving Can Lead to Depression

Caregivers spend an average of more than 24 hours a week assisting their loved ones. While that time can be deeply rewarding, it can also leave you vulnerable -- if you put your own health and well-being at the bottom of your to-do lists.

Neglecting your needs can have serious consequences: A report from the Family Caregiver Alliance found that 40%-70% of caregivers have symptoms of depression.

We don't know the exact cause of the illness -- genetics, brain chemistry, and life experiences all play a role -- but we do know what won't help.

Lack of Sleep

The stress you're feeling can make it hard to settle down and get a good night's rest. Unfortunately, that insomnia makes you almost 10 times more likely to be depressed.

If you sleep well but don't clock enough hours in a night, that can be a problem, too. One small study found that it only took a couple of days for people's moods to be affected when they got less than 5 hours of sleep per night.

Poor Diet

Fast food and other quick grub may be convenient, but it's not necessarily healthy. That's why about 6 out of 10 caregivers say their eating habits have gotten worse, according to a survey done in partnership with the National Alliance for Caregiving.

And there's a strong link between what you eat and how likely depression is. Women who regularly reach for sugary sodas, red meat, and processed grains are up to 41% more likely to be depressed, according to a Harvard School of Public Health study.

A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, and fish may help protect you from depression.

Little Exercise

When you're short on time or exhausted at the end of a long day, it's understandable that you might want to skip the gym.

Here's why you should make your workouts a priority: Even moderate exercise, like walking for 20 minutes a day, can lower your risk of depression.

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Less Time for Socializing

The demands of caregiving can leave you with little time or energy for dinners, parties, and other gatherings with friends. According to the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, about a third of caregivers say their mental state gets in the way of their social lives.

Yet spending time with others can help boost your mood. A study in Ireland found that just 2 hours a week of socializing helped keep depression at bay.

A word of caution: Your smartphone doesn't count. Recent research says face-to-face interactions are much better at protecting against depression when compared to email and phone calls.

Butting Heads

Is the person you're caring for prone to angry outbursts or other disruptive behaviors? You're more likely to be sidelined by depression.

If you look after someone with dementia, that poses even more challenges. Your loved one might wander off or repeat the same words, questions, and actions. The extra frustration and strain doubles your chances.

Another common source of caregiver stress that can lead to depression? Clashing with nurses and other members of your loved one's health care team.

Work and Money Problems

More than two-thirds of caregivers have a job and juggle the demands of both roles. Fewer than 1 in 10 caregivers get paid for what they do, and it's common for caregivers to spend their own money helping to support their loved one.

When your caregiving duties get in the way of your job performance or put you into debt, that stress can eventually lead to depression. One study of 8,400 adults found that people who reported being in debt were more likely to have symptoms of depression. Other research has found that the threat of losing your job can also trigger depression.

Smoking and Drinking

That UCLA research also found that caregivers tend to smoke and binge drink more often than people who aren't caregivers.

Highly stressed? You're more than twice as likely to light up a cigarette than other caregivers. And it becomes a vicious cycle: Smokers are also twice as likely to be depressed as nonsmokers.

While an occasional glass of wine or a beer may help some people relax, alcohol abuse can bring on or worsen depression.

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Are You Depressed?

It's normal to have bad days. But if any of these symptoms are severe or last longer than 2 weeks, it's time to see your doctor.

  • Feeling empty, hopeless, or run down
  • Little interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Irritable
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Changes in your sleep pattern
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on March 01, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

Family Caregiver Alliance: "Caregiver Statistics: Demographics," "Depression and Caregiving."

Caregiver Assessment: Voices and Views From The Field, Volume II, Family Caregiver Alliance, April 2006.

National Institute of Mental Health: "Depression: What You Need To Know."

Taylor, D.J. Sleep, November 2005.

Dinges, D.F. Sleep, April 1997.

Evercare Study of Caregivers in Decline: A Close-Up Look at the Health Risks of Caring for a Loved One, Evercare, September 2006.

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Inflammatory dietary pattern linked to depression among women."

Lucas, M. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, published online Oct. 1, 2013.

Ruunsunen, A. Diet and Depression: An Epidemiological Study, University of Eastern Finland, 2013.

Almudena, S. BMC Medicine, April 2015.

Mammen, G. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, November 2013.

Hoffman, G. "Stressed and Strapped: Caregivers in California," UCLA Center For Health Policy Research, September 2011.

University College Dublin News: "Socialising helps to alleviate symptoms of depression."

Sheridan, A. Enabling Recovery: The Benefits of Supporting Socialisation, Report of a Randomised Controlled Trial, University College Dublin, June 2012.

Teo, A. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, published online Oct. 6, 2015.

Caregiver Action Network: "Depression - What it is and What it is Not."

Sweet, E. Social Science & Medicine, published online May 16, 2013.

Kendler, K.S. American Journal of Psychiatry, June 1999.

Boden, J. The British Journal of Psychiatry, May 2010.

American Psychological Association: "Understanding Alcohol Use Disorders & Their Treatment."

Schuckit, M.A. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, March 2013.

Depression: What You Need to Know, NIH Publication No. 15-3561, Government Printing Office, 2015.

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