Caregivers take heartfelt hit

Although an emotional burden lightens for elderly people when a spouse with Alzheimer’s disease dies or is placed in a nursing home, the former caregiver’s blood pressure rises for at least 1 year after this transition, a new study suggests. During this period of physical vulnerability, further stress may undermine heart and blood vessel function, propose psychiatrist Igor Grant of the University of California, San Diego and his colleagues.

The scientists gathered initial data from 119 people caring in their homes for a spouse with Alzheimer’s disease. The volunteers were studied again after 6 months and 1 year. Participants’ spouses were about equally distributed among four groups: those receiving home care throughout the study, those residing in a nursing facility at the second and third assessments, those living in a facility at the second assessment and then having died before the study concluded, and those having died at home by the second assessment. Caregivers averaged 70 years of age at the beginning of the study and had provided home care for at least 6 years.

In each group of caregivers, initial scores on a depression scale slightly exceeded those of a control group of volunteers living with healthy spouses. By the end of the study, depression scores were comparably low in caregivers and the controls. Reports of serious medical symptoms, such as fever and burning sensations while urinating, also declined among the caregivers, Grant’s team reports in the May/June Psychosomatic Medicine.

However, the caregivers displayed substantial rises in systolic blood pressure. Those who had placed a spouse in a nursing facility displayed the largest 1-year increases, going from around 132 millimeters of mercury to 139 mm of mercury. Physicians regard a healthy reading to be about 120 mm of mercury.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.