Caregiving May Lengthen Life
Reported burden can be 'lightly born,' expert says
(HealthDay News) -- Though caregiving can be stressful and demanding, those caring for others may reap an unexpected benefit: a longer life.
Researchers have found that older people who cared for an ailing spouse were significantly less likely to die prematurely.
"We found that caregivers who spent an average of 14 or more hours a week caregiving lived longer and reduced their risk of dying by about half," the study's author, Stephanie Brown, an assistant professor in internal medicine at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, told HealthDay.
Even after the researchers adjusted the data to account for such factors as age and previous illness, "there was about a 36 percent reduced risk of dying in the seven-year time period," Brown said.
"This study shows that the burden of caregiving can sometimes be lightly born," Dr. Gary Kennedy, director of geriatric psychiatry at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City, told HealthDay.
The findings, reported in Psychological Science, run counter to earlier research that has suggested that caregiving can take a significant toll on the health of the caregiver. Caregivers have been found to be more likely to have symptoms of depression or anxiety, to have chronic medical conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, to get sick more often and even to have a weaker response to vaccination, according to the U.S. National Women's Health Information Center.
"Other studies caution against caregiving, but our study suggests that the actual act of caretaking may not be harmful," Brown noted.
Kennedy said the type of care might have something to do with the discrepancies between studies. For example, he explained, caregiving for someone with early-stage Alzheimer's disease who is still functioning well and behaving fairly normally is much different from taking care of someone in the middle stages of the disease, who could be aggressive and have trouble sleeping.
Brown's study included 1,688 couples older than 70. All lived on their own in the community, rather than in assisted living or in nursing homes. Most of the patients were healthy and functioning well on their own. About 81 percent reported needing no assistance with daily living, 9 percent said they needed less than 14 hours of help each week from their spouse, and 10 percent required more than 14 hours of assistance from their spouse.
During the seven-year study, just over one-fourth of the participants died.
When the researchers reviewed the data and controlled for such factors as age, gender, race, education and net worth, they found that people who provided more than 14 hours of care each week had a lower risk of death than their non-caregiving peers.
Brown suspects this benefit comes from physiological factors associated with stress regulation that are triggered by helping others. Kennedy believes the benefit stems from both physiological and psychological factors.
"We know that in rat pups that are prematurely weaned, their heart rate plummets, even before they've lost body temperature, so it's not related to cooling or caloric problems at that point," he explained. "Simply being separated changes the heart rate."
"Social interactions have a biological impact," he said.
On the Web
To learn more about self-care for caregivers, visit the Family Caregiver Alliance.
SOURCES: HealthDay News; Stephanie Brown, Ph.D., assistant professor, internal medicine, University of Michigan, and researcher, Veterans Affairs Ann Arbor Healthcare System, Ann Arbor, Mich.; Gary Kennedy, M.D., director, geriatric psychiatry, Montefiore Medical Center, New York City; April 2009, Psychological Science; U.S. National Women's Health Information Center (www.womenshealth.gov)
Author: Serena Gordon
Publication Date: Jan. 31, 2010
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