For Female Caregivers, Heart Disease Looms
Multi-generational living, do-it-all expectations add unhealthy stress
(HealthDay News) -- Women in the so-called "sandwich" generation -- those who care for their aging parents and their own children at the same time -- might have yet another worry: This all could be hard on their hearts.
Living with and caring for additional people, research now suggests, can compromise the heart health of the caregiver.
A Japanese study, published in the journal Heart, followed 91,000 people for up to 14 years. The researchers found that women who lived with their parents and children were two to three times more likely to develop serious heart disease than women who lived with just a spouse.
The authors of the study suspect that the increase seen in women's heart disease is at least in part caused by the additional stress of having to care for others, often while working outside the home as well.
"More Japanese middle-aged women are employed full time than ever before," the researchers wrote. "Yet the burden of domestic labor [including child care and care of aging relatives] continues to fall primarily on women, even as their workforce participation has increased."
The researchers found no increase in heart disease for men living in multi-generational homes. And, they were able to rule out the effects of bad lifestyle habits, such as smoking. In fact, less than 3 percent of women living in multi-generational homes were smokers, compared with about 6 percent of women living with just a spouse.
Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, director of women and heart disease at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, told HealthDay that the pattern of working full-time and caring for other family members is all-too familiar in the United States. Plus, she said, more American families are adopting the Japanese pattern of several generations living in the same house.
"I talk about this all the time," Steinbaum said. "Women are becoming more educated and are more and more in the workforce, yet culturally they still are the caretakers of the family. There is an enormous amount of stress and pressure required to do all these things."
Society, she said, needs to be careful not to put all the burden on women. "Roles need to be redefined," she said. "There needs to be either a return to tradition or there needs to be a better sharing of responsibilities."
Dr. Lori Mosca, a physician scientist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, told HealthDay that one problem with the Japanese study was that it didn't adjust for socioeconomic status. Living in a lower-income family -- as many in a multi-generational house might be -- can also increase heart disease risk, she said.
Nonetheless, Mosca said, the study's main conclusion was probably accurate. "Certainly, caring for others can increase the risk of heart disease," she said.
Along with stress and income levels, there are many other factors that influence a woman's heart disease risk, according to the American Heart Association. Some of the most important risk factors that can be changed are smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, being overweight or obese and being physically inactive.
On the Web
To learn more about easing caregiver stress, visit the U.S. National Women's Health Information Center.
SOURCES: HealthDay News; Suzanne Steinbaum, D.O., director, women and heart disease, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York City; Lori Mosca, M.D., Ph.D., physician scientist, New York-Presbyterian Hospital, New York City; Dec. 11, 2008, Heart, online; American Heart Association (www.americanheart.org)
Author: Serena Gordon
Publication Date: Jan. 31, 2010
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