November is National Alzheimer's Disease Awareness Month and National Family Caregivers Month. Check the websties of the National Alzheimer's Association and the National Families Caregiver's Association for local Alzheimer's awareness events and activities in your area. To do our part HealthCentral is asking writers from our various sites to promote awareness of Alzheimer's disease and overlapping conditions. There is a clear link between caregiving for a person with Alzheimer's and autoimmune diseases and we have asked Lene Andersen from our rheumatoid arthritis site to look into this.
Taking care of someone who has dementia is hard (this might be the understatement of the decade). This type of caregiving causes chronic stress so intense that it has a direct effect on your body's ability to support you. Alzheimer caregivers have a higher risk of depression and heart disease, have a harder time fighting infection, their wound healing is delayed and vaccinations don't work as well as in others. These last three aspects indicate an impaired immune response. What happens within your body when you are under this kind of chronic stress? And what is the connection to autoimmune diseases?
Stress and Your Body
Stress triggers a physiological reaction in your body as a result of a perceived threat - this is an automatic response left over from the days of sabertooth tigers. These days we don't often run into large cats looking for a person-sized snack, but the response remains and is similar in situations of physical or emotional stress.
When you're under stress, it triggers the release of stress hormones and immune system proteins, one of which is called interleukin 6 (IL-6). Researchers at Ohio State University Medical Center discovered that the chronic stress of caregiving caused IL-6 to increase four times more than in non-caregiving individuals. And this is where it gets really interesting and relevant to your life because IL-6 is linked to an impaired immune system response in older adults.
The Role of IL-6
IL-6 is part of a group of protein molecules called cytokines that play an important role in the body's immune response.. This group also includes IL-1, IL-8 and TNF (tumor necrosis factor). During periods of stress, they kick into a process that increases inflammation in order to direct blood cells to the site of an injury or infection. This is part of the body's response to events that will require it to heal. However, when this response happens over and over again as it does in chronic stress, it causes the body to maintain high levels of IL-6 as well as other hormones and cytokines. Prolonged high levels of IL-6 has been linked to a host of illnesses and conditions, among them cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes, frequent viral infections and autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA), lupus and MS.
Your immune system protects your against illness and infection. Its job is to attack infection and foreign invaders in your body such as bacteria or viruses so you can get better. However, when you have an autoimmune disease, your immune system is confused and treats your own healthy cells as an invader. How this attack will be expressed depends on which autoimmune disease you have. For instance, in RA, the immune response of inflammation that normally helps heal a wound is directed to the joints and in multiple sclerosis, the immune system attacks the myelin (a sheath that surrounds nerve fibers).