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The Heart of the Matter for Young Women Caregivers

11/27/2012 03:45 pm ET | Updated Jan 26, 2013

Of the 65 million Americans caregiving for a loved one with illness, two-thirds are women -- meaning that just shy of one-third of all women today are informal caregivers. Middle-aged women may be the caregiving poster girls, but a significant number of young women shoulder the burden as well: About a quarter of informal caregivers are between the ages of 18-34, and while there is no exact breakdown, that demographic is commonly recognized as a female majority.

Because they are just getting starting in their adult lives, young women caregivers have a unique set of challenges and needs. "Many women within this age group are just beginning their careers or furthering their education, when they are faced with the task of caregiving," Gail Hunt, CEO of the National Alliance for Caregiving, told me in a phone interview. "Some are forced to put their careers and education on hold, which may have a financial impact on these women in the future."

In addition, about 35% of young caregivers are tending to care recipients ages 0-17 -- in some cases while also mothering healthy children, according to the 2009 National Caregivers Survey. As if being Supermoms and career women were not enough, these women also strive to maintain happy, healthy relationships with their partners.

And so young women caregivers may be at risk for chronic health conditions of their own, as a result of extreme and ongoing stress. "Stress directly affects the body through the release of cortisol and adrenaline, which cause inflammation, increased heart rate and blood pressure -- increasing the likelihood of stroke or a heart attack," said John M. Kennedy, MD, director of Preventive Cardiology and Wellness at Marina Del Rey Hospital in Marina Del Rey, CA, in a phone interview.

What's more, Kennedy continues, stress indirectly can affect young women caregivers, through inadequate nutrition, poor exercise habits, insufficient sleep, and self-medicating behaviors like drinking, smoking, and bingeing on junk food. "These conditions can adversely impact the health of one's heart, even at a young age," Kennedy cautions, adding not only that heart disease is the number one killer of women, but also that the beginning stages of heart disease can be seen in 90% of children today.

The best remedy for stress, advises Lynne Belsky, MD, an internal medicine doctor in Northbrook, IL, is exercise. "People who exercise are less depressed," she says. "In addition, our bodies hormonally react to all stress as if it were from a life-threatening situation. So even if you're stressed because the rent is due, your body will release the same cascade of chemicals as if you were running from a tiger." The best way to manage our stress, Belsky advises, is therefore to enact running from that tiger:

"Run, bike, swim, engage in some cardio-vascular activity that will dispense the overload of energy circulating through your system. When you go through the motions of getting away from the tiger, your body will feel the relief that comes with surviving the perceived life-threatening situation."

In addition, while you may need to downgrade your CrossFit, hard-body workout while caregiving, you can stay in good shape with a few simple routines snuck in throughout the day. "Less is more," says celebrity fitness expert Andrea Metcalf, who spoke with me for this article. "Research indicates that daily activity helps us live longer and healthier than hitting the gym two or three times per week. Believe it or not, it's about consistency. Even if you can only sneak in 10 minutes of exercise, yes, it is better than nothing. So even when you think you don't have time, just do it."

Metcalf advises picking from one of these four routines each day:

1. Walk for 30 minutes.
Can't leave the house for long? Walk 10 minutes before or after each meal. Walking builds bone density and increases lung capacity.

2. Do 10 sets of stairs climbs in a row.
This simple drill of walking up and down the stairs should take about 10 minutes. To strengthen the inner and outer thighs, walk sideways down the stairs - which also will take stress off your knees.

3. Jump rope for two minutes.
Twirl the rope from your wrists and keep the jumps low to the ground. Repeat four times.

4. Perform a sun salutation series.
Repeat this basic yoga flow at least ten times, and make sure to breathe with each movement. Not familiar with this yoga sequence? This selection of YouTube yoga videos will show you how it's done.

In addition to getting in daily exercise, advises Kennedy, take the following steps to ensure your heart stays healthy:

1. Meditate
Sit still for as little as five minutes a day, and just notice your breath flowing in and out. Can't stop your mind chatter? Shift your focus by counting to five for each in-breath and out-breath.

2. Know your numbers.
Be sure to get check-ups, to stay on top of your wellness. Your blood pressure should be less than 130 for the upper number and less than 80 for the lower number; your fasting blood level should be less than 100; and your total cholesterol should be less than 200.

3. Practice visualization.
Research indicates that imagining an experience - like squeezing the juice of a ripe lemon onto your tongue - can produce the physiological response of actually having that experience. Use this mind-body connection to your advantage, by taking a few minutes to visualize yourself in a setting that makes you feel happy and relaxed.

If you are a young woman caregiver for a loved one, chances are that you have a lot of heart. For your loved ones as well as for yourself, keep it strong.