Through Gordon’s stroke recovery, one particular thing continues to remind me of the loss his brain sustained: I will see him watching or observing something, appearing to be fully engaged. I ask him what’s going on and he says “I don’t know.”
How can that be? He is watching and listening attentively. To look at him, he appears engrossed in the scenario. Yet it turns out he isn’t making sense of the scene or understanding context. He isn’t able to tell me anything of what just happened. It is just happening in front of him. That’s it.
So Gordon asked me to write about something that happened last weekend. You will think it is nothing… so read closely!
We went to Target and Gordon noticed they had replaced a couple check-out stations with self check-out stations. Then, when we were leaving the parking lot, he reminded me that we were going to Trader Joes next.
No big deal, right? These are a big deal to us. Little occurrences like these tell me 2 things: 1) Gordon still works very hard to make sense of the world around him, and 2) even 8 years later, improvement is still happening.
The next time your teenager hangs out at the mall with her friends or helps out at a homeless shelter, it could be good for her health.
That’s the findings of a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study that found the more social ties people have at an early age, the better their health and chances of avoiding serious health issues such as stroke.
“Friends are important and so are family, school activities and community involvement,” said Kathleen Mullan Harris, James Haar Distinguished Professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and faculty fellow at the Carolina Population Center (CPC). “How involved you are in the community also helps.”
The study is the first to definitively link social relationships with concrete measures of physical wellbeing such as abdominal obesity, inflammation, and high blood pressure, all of which can lead to long-term health problems, including stroke, heart disease and cancer.
“Based on these findings, it should be as important to encourage adolescents and young adults to build broad social relationships and social skills for interacting with others as it is to eat healthy and be physically active,” said Harris.
Harris said having more social connections can mean lower hypertension which is a risk factor for stroke.
“Social connections tend to buffer the daily stresses in their lives so the more people you have to share bad news or listen to you, the lower your hypertension,” said Harris.
The study, based on 15,000 participants from across the country, builds on previous research that shows that aging adults live longer if they have more social connections.
The researchers found that the sheer size of a person’s social network was important for health in early and late adulthood.
“In adolescence, social isolation can be just as unhealthy as physical inactivity,” said Harris. “So, having social relationships is just as important as exercising.”
The study found that in adolescence social integration protected against abdominal obesity, for example, which is a risk factor for stroke. In old age, social isolation was actually more harmful to health than diabetes.
In middle adulthood, it wasn’t the number of social connections that mattered, but what those connections provided in terms of social support or strain.
“The relationship between health and the degree to which people are integrated in large social networks is strongest at the beginning and at the end of life, and not so important in middle adulthood, when the quality, not the quantity, of social relationships matters,” Harris said.
Harris said the study makes it clear that doctors and other healthcare professionals should pay attention to social relationships when caring for their patients.
“Doctors often don’t pay attention to social relationships,” said Harris. “We want to get the message out that doctors should ask, ‘What do you do in the spare time?’”
According to a study released at the International Stroke Conference, gender plays a role in a caregiver’s health. The study revealed that women, especially those caring for their spouses, were much more likely to develop serious health conditions, including high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes.
Women Are More At Risk
In general, female caregivers are more at risk for serious health conditions than their male counterparts. They report higher incidences of depression and anxiety and lower levels of well-being and life satisfaction. Female caregivers are also more likely to experience chronic disease, an increased risk of cancer, diminished immune system, and physical ailments such as acid reflux and headaches.
Studies indicate that the increased health risks may be associated with how women are wired. Female caregivers tend to have more of an emotional attachment to caregiving than their male counterparts.
Marriage Impacts Stress And Health
Providing care for your spouse can also put you at a higher risk for developing serious and chronic health conditions. The study released at the International Stroke Conference found that spousal caregivers and caregivers of the opposite sex of those they were providing for tended to experience a greater decline in health.
Spouses are particularly prone to burnout and health risks because caregiving can cause significant changes in the dynamics of the marital relationship. Plus, since you live together, you don’t get breaks from caregiving.
The study also indicated that the women who cared for their spouses tended to be at greater risk than men who cared for theirs.
Other Factors Compound The Risk
Some female caregivers are more susceptible to developing health issues than others. The study found other factors influenced the risk, including:
• Length of caregiving
• Difficulty of caregiving tasks
• Perceived impact on caregiver’s life
What You Can Do
Although female caregivers are at greater risk for developing health issues, providing care for a stroke survivor can have an impact on men, too. The National Alliance for Caregiving states that nearly half of the caregivers they surveyed indicate that their health has gotten worse as a result of caregiving.
Take these steps to alleviate stress and protect your health:
• Ask for help from family and friends
• Join a support group
• Take time for yourself to visit with friends or enjoy a hobby
• Arrange for respite care
• If married, focus on the positive aspects of caregiving on relationship
• Schedule regular physical check-ups for yourself
• Exercise and meditate