Chronic Stress Puts Heart Disease Patients At Greater Risk

November 10, 1998

Heart disease patients under chronic stress show high levels of a 'metabolic syndrome' that leaves them at greater risk of heart attack and other health complications, according to new research.

Heart patients who cared for a spouse with Alzheimer's disease showed higher levels of this metabolic syndrome -- which is marked by elevated blood pressure, cholesterol, glucose, insulin, and obesity -- than did heart patients who were not caregivers, Peter P. Vitaliano, PhD, of the University of Washington, Seattle, and colleagues report in the November Health Psychology.

As the population ages, more older Americans are expected to be thrust into the stressful role of providing care to a loved one with Alzheimer's or other chronic illnesses, increasing their risk of health problems as well, Vitaliano says.

His research team examined 71 elderly adults who cared for a spouse with Alzheimer's disease and 70 control adults who did not care for a spouse. They measured each person's blood pressure, cholesterol, glucose, insulin, and body mass and combined these into a single number representing their metabolic syndrome level. About one-third of the caregivers and one-quarter of the controls had heart disease.

At both the beginning of the study and at a follow-up about 18 months later, caregivers with heart disease had a higher metabolic syndrome level than did non-caregivers with heart disease.

"If these people continue to caregive for long periods of time, which is what you have with Alzheimer's disease, they are at risk for not being able to control their mdetabolism and blood pressure, and they will be at greater risk of heart attack," Vitaliano says.

Interestingly, the higher metabolic syndrome level among caregivers with heart disease appears to be related to their practice of poorer health habits and their lack of psychological 'uplifts' to counter the stress of caregiving, the researchers say.

"Interventions for caregivers with heart disease which serve to increase exercise and psychological uplifts and improve their diet should be considered," Vitaliano says. "In fact, evoking positive experiences is a useful strategy that caregivers can use to reduce perceived stress."

The research was supportred by grants from the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institute of Aging, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and the National Institutes of Health.

Health Psychology is the official, peer-reviewed research journal of the Division of Health Psychology (Division 38), American Psychological Association.

Posted by the Center for the Advancement of Health For information about the Center, contact Richard Hebert (202) 387-2829.

Center for Advancing Health

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