Caregivers: Looking Forward to a Longer Life Expectancy

A new study conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins and funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and the Department of Health and Human Services finds that caregivers may actually benefit from a longer life expectancy compared to their non-caregiving counterparts. The findings indicate that on average, family caregivers live about nine months longer than those who don’t serve as primary caregivers to an aging loved one. Health benefits of caregiving

Caregiver stress typically linked to increased health risk

These findings are surprising in light of the many articles and other studies that have shown that caregivers have higher levels of stress and are more likely to exhibit symptoms of depression and anxiety — which can make them  more susceptible to other chronic diseases and more likely to neglect their own health and wellness needs. Rational thinking would lead you to believe that caregivers would have a shorter lifespan than those not subjected to the many stresses and challenges of caregiving.

Dr. David L. Roth, lead author of the study and director of the Johns Hopkins University Center on Aging and Health, says the findings are in direct contradiction with previous research that links caregiving to higher mortality rates. The Johns Hopkins study evaluated 3,500 family caregivers as well as an equal number of non-caregivers. Data was obtained from a pool of more than 30,000 participants in the Reasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS) study, and all participants were 45 years of age or older.

Johns Hopkins researchers found that participants in the family caregiver group actually did not experience an increase in health risks — and in fact, they had an 18 percent lower risk of death throughout the six-year study duration.

Caregiving actually has some health benefits

Even more interesting is the fact that evaluating specific sub-groups of the study did not reveal any particular group that showed a higher risk of mortality — even those caregivers who reported at least some caregiving strain (the stress we typically associate with an increased risk of chronic disease and attribute to the previously-believed shorter lifespan).

One finding has emerged from this research that we already know to be true: Many caregivers in the study report feelings of self-worth, greater self-esteem and the joys of receiving gratitude and recognition from the loved ones they care for. In a summary of the findings published at Medical News Today, Dr. Roth says, “Thus, when caregiving is done willingly, at manageable levels, and with individuals who are capable of expressing gratitude, it is reasonable to expect that health benefits might accrue in those situations.”

More research needed to evaluate high-stress caregiving situations

It’s important to note that this research does not take into account the specific caregiving duties requires of the family caregivers evaluated, or even the level of care the care recipients required. Researchers do point out that future studies delving into these specific sub-sets of the caregiving population more closely could in fact reveal a higher risk of mortality in particularly high-stress and demanding caregiving situations.

That said, if family caregiving can be arranged in such a way as to minimize stress on the caregiver — such as by splitting up caregiving duties among siblings — there could actually be health benefits obtainable by providing care for an aging family member or other loved one.

Image via Flickr by English Heritage

Post by Angela Stringfellow

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