A prospective assessment of the biological burden of stress in caregivers: Impact on cognitive performance, mood and the benefits of mindfulness

The age structure of the population in Ireland is changing rapidly and the HSE predicts that the 65+ year old age group will contribute 20% of the population by the year 2036. Already, nearly 5% of the population are engaged as caregivers for ill elderly relatives and this is particularly stressful for those whose spouses or parents suffer from dementia. The health and general wellbeing implications is understudied and poorly appreciated, particularly in the context of mental health and cognitive performance. Serious consequences also arise for an already struggling healthcare system and economy. This demands that we improve our understanding of its impact and develop effective strategies to combat the detrimental effects.
The stress of family dementia caregiving promotes inflammation and is associated with health issues such as cardiovascular problems. This combination of stress and immune activation can also alter the availability of tryptophan, a precursor to serotonin which is the main target of antidepressant therapies. In this study, we aim to examine the impact of family dementia caregiving on tryptophan availability and to determine how this affects mood and cognitive performance in terms of memory and decision making. We will further seek to examine the stress-response in caregivers and determine whether a mindfulness-based stress reduction approach, which has previously been shown to alleviate stress and improve general wellbeing, can improve the mental health and cognitive consequences of caregiving in this population.
The potential benefits of this study will be crucial to advancing our understanding of the stress-related health implications of family dementia caregiving, in pinpointing the biological basis for these health problems and to define the benefits of mindfulness in this cohort. It is hoped that the findings will be of great benefit to the individuals involved in caregiving, to society as a whole and to the healthcare system.

Award Date
19 June 2014
Award Value
Principal Investigator
Dr Gerard Clarke
Host Institution
University College Cork
Health Research Awards