A new US study led by Johns Hopkins researchers contradicts long-standing beliefs that the stress of caregiving leads to early death and instead shows that family caregivers live around 9 months longer than non- caregivers.

Lead author Dr. David L. Roth, director of the Johns Hopkins University Center on Aging and Health, and colleagues report their findings in the latest online issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology.

Commenting on the findings, Dr. Roth says:

"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. 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 study compared over 3,500 family caregivers with a matched number of non-caregivers and found that providing care for a chronically ill or disabled family member not only failed to increase health risk, but was also tied to an 18% lower risk of death over the 6-year period of the study.

The data for the study came from a cohort of over 30,000 people, aged 45 years or older who took part in the Reasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS) study.

The researchers carefully matched caregivers with non-caregivers using a measure based on 15 common variables covering the usual demographics, such as age, sex and education, plus health history and health behavior.

'Unique and innovative' methods

Dr. Roth says their study is the first of its kind to show the mortality effect for caregivers using this "propensity matching" approach, as he explains:

"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."

He says they also found no exceptions to the overall finding when they examined subgroups of caregivers:

"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."

If anything, Dr. Roth says many of the caregivers reported increased self-esteem and receiving gratitude and recognition from the family members they cared for.

"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," he explains.

Incomplete picture

However, he cautions that they did not have a complete picture about the care recipients, such as their functional status, or the type of care they received, so it could be that another analysis with such data present might find some subgroups of family caregivers with a higher risk of death.

But, he suggests if extreme stress can be managed or avoided, caregiving may actually bring health benefits for both the caregiver and the person they are caring for, including an increase in life expectancy for the caregiver.

"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," he adds.

The team calls for more studies on adult children caring for parents, because this subgroup is growing and is largely understudied, compared to caregivers looking after spouses.

Estimates from the US Commission on Long-Term Care suggest family caregivers provide the equivalent of $450 billion in care and support every year. The demand for caregivers to look after the elderly is growing as the population ages, but there is also a looming shortage of caregivers.

A recent report from the AARP suggests the pool of family and friends to care for America's Baby Boomers as they age into their 80s will be less than half as deep as it is today.

Funds from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and the Department of Health and Human Services helped finance the study.