Should you be worried about your own health as a caregiver?

Being a family caregiver may not be as hazardous to your health as most people think, researchers say.

Decades of research papers and media reports have warned that family caregivers are at risk for health declines. One suggested reason is that the stress of caregiving can increase inflammation and weaken the immune system. Caregiving can of course be challenging when having to deal with aspects like incontinence.

Fear of caregiving

For this study, researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore reviewed 30 papers published between 1987 and 2016. They concluded that stress explains less than 1% of the variability in caregivers' immune and inflammation biomarkers.

"We're not saying that family caregiving can't be stressful, but there's a notion that it's so stressful that it causes deteriorating health and increased mortality. This can lead to fear of caregiving and a reluctance to care for loved ones in need," said first author David Roth, director of Hopkins' Center on Aging and Health.

That narrative is "exaggerated", he said.

"It's not that we didn't find anything, but it's a whisper of an effect, not nearly as large as what people have been led to believe," Roth said in a Hopkins news release.

Pro-social behaviour

He and his colleagues hope their findings will encourage people to be more open to caregiving, and convince health care providers to move away from the idea that caregivers are vulnerable.

"Caregiving, if done right, can actually be an extremely beneficial, healthy activity that enhances your life because you're engaging in pro-social behaviour," Roth said.

The study was recently published in The Gerontologist journal.

More than 34 million people in the United States provide care for a chronically ill, disabled or aged family member or friend, according to the National Alliance for Caregiving. The value of that care is estimated at $375bn a year.

Image credit: iStock

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