Despite the considerable level of stress that can come with serving as a unpaid caregiver, a new study now suggests that taking care of a loved one may in fact lead to increased longevity among older women.
The findings, published in The Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, revealed that women who said they were taking care of a loved one on a regular basis had a mortality rate 9 percent lower than that of non-caregivers over the course of the study.
While the study did not find a direct connection between caregiving and reducing risk of death, its authors describe the association as robust. As they point out, the existing literature about the health impacts of caregiving has been contradictory. Research in this area will therefore need to continue exploring the potential connection between reduced death rates among women who choose to take on caregiving responsibilities – as well as the reasons why this may be the case.
Women and Caregiver Responsibilities
Today, more than 35 percent of caregivers in the U.S. are age 65 or older, with caregiving services mostly undertaken by older women.
This study followed nearly 160,000 women aged 55 to 79 over roughly 20 years. The participants took part in two assessments 10 years apart.
The data was collected as part of several clinical trials focused on prevention of major chronic conditions in older women. However, the assessments included questions on caregiving. Participants were asked about whether they were actively providing caregiving aid to a loved one and, if so, how many hours they dedicated to the service weekly. About 41 percent of them reported serving in a caregiver role anywhere from less than once to more than five times a week.
The women also provided information on a number of other factors, including depressive symptoms, race, living status, smoking, and history of cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and hypertension.
The women who reported being a caregiver over the two assessments showed not only a 9 percent lower death rate from any cause than those who were not caregivers, but also a lower risk of death from cancer or cardiovascular disease. This proved to be the case no matter how frequently they reported performing caregiver duties. Other factors, including how old the women caregivers were or whether they lived alone, likewise did not appear to affect this result.
Need for Further Research Regarding Caregiving and Decreased Death Rates
Caregiving remains a critical need and will continue as Americans grow older and live longer. Currently, 10,000 people in the U.S. are turning 65 years old each day, according to AARP.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has identified caregiving – whether paid or unpaid – as a major public health issue. Because caregiving is such an expensive service, many older people rely on family members to stand in the gap and provide their care. The resulting burden on family caregivers can include burnout, lost wages, and a lack of support.
“The burden of caregiving demands and their influence on health will be substantial in coming years,” co-author Michael J. LaMonte of the University of Buffalo-SUNY said in a news release. “[It] is an increasingly important focus in epidemiologic research,” he adds.