NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Caring for a disabled family member can be overwhelmingly hard. But caregivers may live longer than those who don't bear such responsibilities, new research suggests.
In a nationwide study, adults who provided care for a chronically ill or disabled family member had a lower death rate than a similar group of non-caregivers.
The finding is something of a surprise.
In the past, researchers have found just the opposite - an increased risk of death as well as poorer mental and physical health among caregivers. Such detrimental health effects have been found among people caring for a disabled spouse or a person with dementia, for example.
"(We want to) emphasize the positive message that caregiving is a healthy thing that we should be doing in our families," lead study author Dr. David L. Roth, director of the Johns Hopkins University Center on Aging and Health, told Reuters Health.
Dolores Gallagher-Thompson, who directs the Geriatric Education Center at Stanford University School of Medicine in California told Reuters Health the current study's findings are "surprising… because prior studies did find an association between caregiver stress and mortality."
Gallagher-Thompson pointed out that the caregivers included in Roth's study were not heavily stressed, however. They didn't all have their ill family member living with them full time. Some caregivers may have just visited their charges, the report indicates.
The study also did not distinguish between caregivers of people with dementia and those with other conditions.
"Previous studies that have reported high stress and increased mortality have focused on dementia," said Gallagher-Thompson.
Roth noted that poorer health among caregivers is "undoubtedly true" in some cases, particularly among those caring for people with dementia. However, "caregiving stress has been over exaggerated," he said.
Of the 3,503 caregivers included in the study, over 80% said they were experiencing either no mental or emotional strain or only a moderate level of such strain.
Only 578 - or less than one in five - felt their caregiving caused them "high strain."
Roughly two thirds of the caregivers were female. About a third were adult children, and about one in five were spouses. Slightly more than half provided care for less than 14 hours a week.
Regardless of the nature of their responsibilities, caregivers appeared to reap benefits from their own selflessness. Death rates were 18% lower among caregivers than among their non-caregiving counterparts, Roth and his team report in the American Journal of Epidemiology.
During the 2003-2012 study period, about 7.5 percent of caregivers died, compared to about 9 percent of the same number of noncaregivers.
"In a way you can say this is good news," said Gallagher-Thompson, who was not involved in the study. "If you‘re caring for someone with long-term (illness or disability in some cases), it may actually provide you with some health benefits."
Reasons for the lower rate of death among caregivers may have to do with their own self-selection, Roth said. Considering the low number of spouse caregivers included in the study, the non-spouse caregivers who chose to provide care to their family members "may be healthier, better adjusted people who have their own house in order," he said.
Gallagher-Thompson thinks maybe altruism, spirituality, and resilience among caregivers also played a role. "Some caregivers are able to roll with the punches," she said.
The study's sample was drawn from the national Reasons for Geographic and racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS) Study of African American and white adults aged 45 years and older. Study participants were largely recruited from the southern region of the United States. Caregivers from this sample were statistically matched with noncaregivers according to a number of factors, including age, race, gender, educational and income level, self-rated health, and mental status.
Still, the narrow focus on only African American and white adults limits the generalizability of this study's findings, said Gallagher-Thompson. We have "no idea whether these findings may apply to other races, cultures, or ethnicities."
SOURCE: bit.ly/H6ejhF American Journal of Epidemiology, online October 3, 2013.