Caregivers' Life Span May Be Longer

Caregivers of family members with chronic illness might have lower death rate than non caregivers

(RxWiki News) As the population ages, more and more people are taking on the role of caregiver, supporting older relatives as they age. It has been suggested that the stress of this role can bring health problems, but a new study found that caregivers may actually live longer.

The new study followed both caregivers and non-caregivers for several years.

The researchers found that fewer caregivers than non-caregivers died during the study.

"Ask for support from others when caregiving."

"The increasing number of older adults, rising prevalence of many chronic diseases, and greater emphasis on noninstitutional care are requiring a greater number of individuals to serve as informal caregivers of family members with chronic illnesses or disabilities," David L. Roth, PhD, director of the Johns Hopkins University Center on Aging and Health in Baltimore, Maryland, and colleagues wrote.

"These family caregivers often endure substantial life changes and chronic stressors that several studies suggest are linked to deleterious health effects, including increased risk of death," they wrote.

To further examine this issue, Dr. Roth and colleagues used data from the national Reasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS) Study, which tracked participants and their possible deaths.

From the REGARDS study, 3,503 family caregivers and 3,503 non-caregivers, matched for demographics, health history and health behaviors, were identified. Both groups were around 63 percent female and 40 percent African American, with an average age of 63 years.

Caregivers were identified as people who answered yes to the question, "Are you currently providing care on an ongoing basis to a family member with a chronic illness or disability? This would include any kind of help such as watching your family member, dressing or bathing this person, arranging care, or providing transportation."

Over an average follow-up of six years, 264 (7.5 percent) of the caregivers died, compared with 315 (9 percent) of the non-caregivers.

Dr. Roth and team estimated that the caregivers had an 18 percent reduced rate of death compared to their non-caregiving counterparts.

The researchers analyzed the data in terms of a variety of other factors, including gender, race and perceived strain from the caregiving role, but did not find any specific subgroups of caregivers that had increased rates of death compared to the non-caregivers.

It is important to note that this study did not attempt to explain why a difference in death rates might have occurred, nor did the study delve into the actual role of caregivers, disability level of their care recipients or condition of those being cared for.

The authors of this study noted that caregivers of people with dementia have been known to face chronic stressors that have been linked to increased death risk in other studies.

"Future research should include indicators of care needs, particularly for stressful types of care involving dementia, mental health–related issues, and end-of-life situations," Dr. Roth and team suggested.

However, not every caregiver is helping a dementia patient, and only 17 percent of the caregivers in this study reported high levels of strain from the role. The authors noted that benefits like self-esteem and gratitude from care recipients have been reported as potential benefits from the role.

"... [I]f highly stressful situations can be avoided or managed effectively, caregiving may actually produce some health benefits for both the care recipients and the caregivers, including reduced risk of death for those providing care," wrote Dr. Roth and team.

This study was published online October 3 in the American Journal of Epidemiology. No conflicts of interest were reported.

Review Date: 
October 15, 2013