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Monday, August 12, 2013

Stress and Memory

While browsing through my old health news letters prior to pitching them, I came across an interesting article on stress and memory. The study involved rats and cats. The rats learned their way through a water maze and were doing quite well until they were placed in cages next to cats. Then, the rats forgot everything they had learned about the maze.

Don’t you feel just like a rat trapped in a cage next to your worst enemy some days? If you have the big bad world nipping at your heels, it’s no wonder that your memory might fail you at the most crucial times.

When you consider the strain of being an Alzheimer’s caregiver, it is no wonder that memory is not just a concern for the person with the disease. Each stage of caregiving involves both emotional and physical stressors according to the Alzheimer’s Association’s 2013 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures (p.33). Research shows that caregiver’s who are responsible for a person with Alzheimer’s or a related dementia report higher stress levels than caregivers of older adults with other diseases.

In the United States, 15.4 million family or unpaid caregivers provide $17.5 billion worth of care to their loved ones with dementia. Family caregivers provide an average of nine hours care per day.
Sixty-one percent rated emotional stress as very high and another thirty-nine percent rated the level as somewhat high. When the stress levels are broken down further, fifty-six percent report “a good amount” of strain due to financial issues and another fifty-three percent cite family relationships.

The role of the primary caregiver intensifies as the disease progresses and creates health issues for the caregiver. Stress suppresses the immune system leaving caregivers vulnerable to physical problems. Caregivers who feel they obligated to take on the role of caregiver report the highest levels of stress.

In addition to the stress and strain of being a dementia caregiver, you may have a little niggling thought that perhaps your memory isn’t what it should be. You know firsthand what a devastating disease Alzheimer’s is and with your responsibilities, you can’t possibly give up or give in to the doubts plaguing you about your own memory problems.

I think the only thing that really kept me from believing I was developing dementia on my own was the knowledge that dementia affects so much more than memory. It chips away at long-term skills, not just those recently learned. Yes, short term memory is the first symptom, but when you consider the effect stress has on memory, stress is a more likely scenario than dementia.

An important characteristic for a caregiver is optimism. With Alzheimer’s, your positive hopes for a cure are dashed, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do countless acts that will increase the quality of life for your loved one. Continue to do as much as you can together for as long as possible. Those days spent on drives, picnics in the park, walking hand-in-hand on a nice spring day will not only relieve the stress of caregiving, but also will remain in your heart. 

Perhaps, like me, you have already noticed stress affects your ability to recall information. Before you get too stressed out about your memory, think about rats and cats. The best antidote for stress is relaxation. Anything you can do to help lower your stress levels will improve your memory. Quiet time is so important and time away, respite, can be a lifesaver for a caregiver. You are not being selfish by needing that time. When you improve your physical or emotional health, you become a better caregiver. Your own health is one of the best gifts you can give your loved one.

Copyright (c) August 2013 by L.S. Fisher
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