Brent T. Mausbach of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Diego at La Jolla recently conducted a study that examined the levels of depression and stress in 116 elderly caregivers. These caregivers were specifically caring for partners with Alzheimer’s disease, but the findings likely are generalizable to anyone who cares for a loved one.

Previous studies have shown a correlation between caregivers experiencing depression and an increased risk for heart disease.

Not surprisingly, the study revealed that the caregivers who participated in leisure activities had lower levels of stress than those who did not. The study did not find a direct link between depression and heart disease risk, but it did show that increased stress can increase risk.

Although more than one-third of the caregivers did exhibit clinical levels of depression, Mausbach believes it is the lack of leisure activity, perhaps resulting from the guilt associated with depression, that leads to negative mood and increased stress in the caregivers.

As a caregiver, what can you do to lower your risk of depression and potentially other illnesses?

  1. Take the advice of experts and schedule leisure time. Mausbach said that caregivers may not take time for themselves because of guilt association with leaving the loved one, even for a short while. However, it is essential that you give yourself permission for time off, even if it is only an hour or two a week. Not only will you be doing yourself a favor, your loved one will likely notice that you are in a better mood, too. Try these six steps for partner self-care.
  2. Seek support from others in your situation. Support groups for caregivers of those with mental illness can be tremendously validating, as well as offer hope and resources. If there are no groups in your geographic area, online forums and online support groups are good alternatives. Also, consider individual therapy for yourself.
  3. Utilize other resources for caregivers. This post offers suggestions for how to coordinate with others for your loved one’s care.

Mausbach, B. T., Chattillion, E., Roepke, S. K., Ziegler, M. G., Milic, M., von Känel, R., et al. (2012). A longitudinal analysis of the relations among stress, depressive symptoms, leisure satisfaction, and endothelial function in caregivers. Health Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0027783