Helping the helpers: The importance of heart health amongst caregivers

We partnered with the American Heart Association of Oregon to host a virtual conversation focused on the health of caregivers. Experts discussed practical tips for coping with stress, maintaining heart health and balancing mental well-being while caring for others.

Helping the helpers: The importance of heart health amongst caregivers
Caregivers take on immense responsibility, yet often they don’t receive support and compassionate care themselves. Over the years, the Cambia Health Foundation has aimed to transform the way people experience health care, including investing in ways to provide care and support for caregivers. Through our deeply rooted partnership with the American Heart Association, we recently co-hosted a panel discussion on the topic of heart health amongst caregivers. The participants included Harry Krulewitch, MD MPH (OHSU), Lori Tam, MD (Providence) and Renee Moseley, Associate Director (Bridge Meadows). Below, we’ve compiled highlights from the discussion.

Health risks of caregiving

Caregivers are often so focused on their responsibility to their loved one that they neglect caring for themselves. In addition, physical and emotional stress takes its toll on caregivers by manifesting as hypertension, anxiety and depression – all of which lead to a higher risk of heart disease. “Caregivers also tend to have a higher levels of inflammation which can lead to heart attacks and strokes,” said Dr. Lori Tam.

Creating a culture of care

Caregivers can’t do it all and the reality is that the United States lacks sufficient services to support them. In response, it’s important for caregivers to create networks in their personal lives that are infused with a culture of care. Neighbors and communities can provide support that exceeds that of professional services.

“There is such a high need for caregivers to find their tribe – whether it’s online or in person. For example, there are organizations out there that pair similar caregivers together, such as caring for people with Alzheimer's,” said Renee Moseley.

Prevention is key

“Caregivers can’t do good work if they’re burned out, and tragically many caregivers believe they can’t take a break for themselves – so I always encourage people to recognize that taking care of themselves is an act of kindness for the person you’re caring for,” said Dr. Harry Krulewitch.

There are numerous ways caregivers can prevent their health from declining, including:
  • Prevention: See your primary care provider regularly and make sure your labs are up to date. Caregivers should ensure they know their numbers, including blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol. “It’s not enough to just know your numbers – you also need to know how to improve your numbers,” said Tam. “Sometimes this can be accomplished by lifestyle change or medication. 80% of heart disease is preventable. For example, I often recommend abiding by the Mediterranean style diet which includes less processed foods and saturated fats.”
  • Physical activity: Be intentional about setting aside time to exercise; engage in 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week.
  • Mindfulness: “Meditation, journaling, yoga, art, music and breathing exercises help us slow down and notice how we’re doing,” said Krulewitch. By caring for your mental health and well-being, caregivers can impact how they think, feel and act.
  • Seek additional support: Many services are available that can help ease the burden, but caregivers need to actively seek them out. For example, social workers can help connect caregivers to resources, lab draws and medication reconciliation can be arranged to happen at home, transportation can be arranged for medical appointments and more.
“Caregivers should treat themselves with kindness – it’s difficult and it’s hard. Give yourself grace and know that what you’re doing is appreciated,” said Tam.

To watch the full panel discussion, click here: