Because the immune system’s defence mechanisms become impaired as we grow older, our ability to resist infection progressively declines. So does our ability to respond effectively to other causes of inflammation that have been implicated in age related atherosclerosis, osteoporosis, arthritis, Type 2 diabetes, cancers and dementia.
Chronic stress is widely believed to accelerate biologic aging and support comes from studies confirming its adverse effects on immune system function, as well as how we respond to hidden inflammation. Stress significantly reduces the immune response to influenza and pneumococcal vaccine in the elderly, and to hepatitis B vaccine in younger individuals.
The stress of care giving for a spouse or loved one with dementia has also been shown to delay wound healing and shorten life that may be related to effects on inflammation.
Interleukin-6 (IL-6) is an important indicator of subclinical inflammation thought to contribute to degenerative diseases. When such caregivers were followed for six years, it was found that their average IL-6 levels increased four times more than controls matched for age, sex, health and socioeconomic status. Furthermore, this increased difference in IL-6 persisted for years after care giving activities ceased which could speed up the aging process and explain higher death rates.
In one study, senior citizens who felt stressed out from taking care of their disabled spouses were 63 percent more likely to die within 4 years than caregivers without this complaint. In another study that focused on telomere research, spouses and children who provided such constant care shortened their lives by as much as four to eight years!
Telomeres are areas of genetic material on the ends of a cell’s chromosomes that provide protection. As a cell divides, telomeres shorten and some of these genetic instructions are lost. An enzyme called telomerase normally prevents this, but as we grow older, our ability to make telomerase decreases, and the protective telomeres become shorter.
Thus, telomere length is a basic indicator of cellular aging and telomerase activity is a measure of cellular capacity for ongoing replication. Both of these were shown to be significantly reduced in these Alzheimer caregivers compared to controls. Caregivers also had double the rate of severe depression and prior research has shown that this can increase risk of death by as much as four times when compared with non-depressed controls.
Some of the early warning signs of caregiver stress are:
Some tips on how to reduce caregiver stress include: