Our spirits lift when we’re away from our routines and in a beautiful place. The opposite happens when we’re too busy and can’t take a break. Prolonged stress isn’t good. We don’t sleep well. We’re tired and short-tempered. But does ongoing stress actually harm our health? If so, how, or is that an urban legend?
Turns out that prolonged stress damages our telomeres. Research into telomeres and the enzyme that repairs them, telomerase, has found a measurable connection between aging, stress, and health.
Until a year ago, I’d never heard the word telomere, but one day my friend and fellow writer, Margaret Ann Spence, the mother of a special-needs son, was talking about how draining it was to be on call 24/7. As parents reach their sixties and seventies, it just isn’t possible for a parent to do the heavy lifting. That ushers in another stressful time. Parents confronting their own mortality must make provisions for their adult children’s care.
While making the transition from caring for her son at home to finding a care-home, Margaret had stumbled on a Nobel-prize-winning study of mothers with special-needs children. She thought readers of this blog might be interested. Well, Margaret was right. The data was shocking. Turns out that the prolonged stress these women were under had caused their telomeres to shrink. That put their health at risk. I wanted to know more.
What Is A Telomere?
The word telomere is derived from the Greek word telos (τέλος), meaning “end.” Put simply, a telomere is like the tip on your shoelace. Strands of DNA have caps on the end. These caps are called telomeres. Young DNA strands have long telomeres. However, telomeres shrink with age and stress.
How did molecular biologists figure out the correlation?
They studied two groups of mothers. One group had children with profound disabilities. The other group was made up of moms whose children were developing normally. The researchers could count the hours the moms had to deal with their kids. They asked what kinds of tasks the moms performed and how much they slept. All that data was measurable. Then, they took blood samples. The telomeres of the moms with higher stress levels grew shorter over time.
Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider (Blackburn’s graduate student) won the Nobel Prize for Medicine for this discovery. A professor at the University of California, San Francisco, Blackburn’s piece of the stress-puzzle was to take blood samples and measure the telomere-lengths of mothers in the two groups. Long-term caregiving had shortened the telomeres of the special-needs’ moms by as much as nine to seventeen years. Yes, that’s years, not months. The longer the person lived the life of a caregiver, the shorter her telomeres.
Shorter telomeres are associated with “biologic aging”—how old your body thinks it is. Telomeres are timekeepers. Factors like obesity and smoking shorten telomeres. And, now, we know that stress does, too. What’s a mother to do?
Help for Solo Moms of Disabled Children
I just ran across a book that could be a valuable resources for single mothers of disabled children (and for any other long-term caregiver). It’s called Going Solo While Raising Children with Disabilities and it’s by Laura E. Marshak (ISBN 9781606131800). Here’s a synopsis from the back cover.
“It’s a fact that children with disabilities are more likely than other children to be living in single-parent homes. If you’re raising a child with disabilities on your own, whether by choice or circumstance, you’ll find a wealth of support, affirmation, and practical ideas in this guide to living well. Going Solo While Raising Children with Disabilities is the first book for single parents (whether they are ‘solo parents’ by becoming widowed, separated, divorced, single by choice, adoptive or foster parents, or military spouses with deployed partners) whose kids have a wide variety of disabilities, whether they are physical, neurodevelopmental, and/or psychiatric. Going Solo While Raising Children with Disabilities, by Laura Marshak,… skillfully weaves together extensive interviews and survey results of solo mothers and fathers (and grandparents, too) with reliable coping strategies gleaned from 25 years as a practicing psychologist and specialist in disability adjustment. [The book] is replete with insightful personal narratives and the author’s deconstruction of these to offer universal lessons ranging from the basic (e.g., practice mindfulness to de-stress), to the profound (e.g., cultivate gratitude as the antidote to resentment), and will help readers assess and transform their own lives for the better. Agencies, extended family, and friends will want a copy of this book, too, to support the solos they care about.”
And here’s a glowing review from the Chicago Book Review:
Exceptionally well written, organized and presented by a truly knowledgeable practitioner, “Going Solo While Raising Children with Disabilities” is as informed and informative as it is thoroughly ‘user friendly’ from beginning to end. Very highly recommended for personal, family, social service agency, community, and academic libraries…an absolute ‘must’ for anyone charged with the responsibility of providing for the needs of children with disabilities.
I’m going to add this book to my Book Table! I’ll see if Dr. Marshak will do a guest blog; but, meanwhile, I’d like to know what has worked for you. What do you want to share with people in prolonged caregiving situations? Do you remember the stress, or are you currently in the middle of it?