Contrary to currently held beliefs about caregiver stress, caregivers have an increased survival rate of 18 percent when compared to statistically compatible non-caregivers, says a new study by John’s Hopkins Medicine. The report was announced on October 17, 2013, and was published in the "American Journal of Epidemiology."
Researchers say their findings show that caring for a disabled or chronically ill family member does not create a health risk. Over a six year period, caregivers showed that caregivers had an extension of 9 months life expectancy. Currently, the Commission on Long-Term Care estimates that family caregivers provide an estimated $450 billion of support every year.
“Taking care of a chronically ill person in your family is often associated with stress, and caregiving has been previously linked to increased mortality rates,” says first author, David L. Roth, Ph.D., director of the Johns Hopkins University Center on Aging and Health. “Our study provides important new information on the issue of whether informal family caregiving responsibilities are associated with higher or lower mortality rates as suggested by multiple conflicting previous studies.”
The researchers used data from the Reasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS) study. The information from more than 30,000 African-Americans 45 years of age or older were used to analyze excess stroke risk among those living in the Southeastern U.S. “stroke belt.” The researchers compared 3,503 family caregivers with non-caregivers who were matched by 15 common characteristics such as health history, demographics, and health behaviors.
“Although our findings are not entirely new, the statistical methods we used were unique and innovative and our large national database, which included a large number of African-American caregivers, is what really sets our research apart,” Roth said. The analysis of caregiver subgroups showed results consistent with findings for the overall caregiver group.
. “We did not find any subgroup of caregivers in the REGARDS sample that appeared to be vulnerable to increased mortality risks. This includes our analyses of all spouse caregivers and of the spouse caregivers who report experiencing some caregiving strain,” Roth said. “In many cases, caregivers report receiving benefits of enhanced self-esteem, recognition and gratitude from their care recipients. 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,” added Roth.
Roth admitted that the study had limitations, and that it may be possible for a subgroup to be have an increased risk of death. The study lacked of information about the abilities of the care recipients and the specific types of care being provided.
“If highly stressful situations can be avoided or managed effectively, caregiving may actually offer some health benefits for both the care recipients and the caregivers, including reduced risk of death for those providing care,” Roth said. “Negative public health and media portrayals of the risk of family caregiving may do a disservice by portraying caregiving as dangerous, and could potentially deter family members from taking on what can be a very satisfying and healthy family role. Public discussions of caregiving should more accurately balance the potential risks and gains of this universal family role.”