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Caring for an older, ailing family member may be stressful, but studies say it may actually increase your lifespan.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/5/2009 8:20:46 AM ET 2009-05-05T12:20:46

Boomers sandwiched between growing children and ailing aging parents often worry that the stress from all that caregiving might shave years off their lives. But it turns out that the opposite may be true — the nurturing they give may be repaid by a longer lifespan, a study shows.

Earlier studies found that people who had cared for sick relatives died at a younger age than people who didn’t help. But researchers from the University of Michigan suspected the caregiving wasn’t the problem.

“We thought that it wasn’t the helping that was harmful, and that the harm seen in those studies came from watching someone die,” says study author Stephanie Brown, a social psychologist and an assistant professor in the department of internal medicine at the University of Michigan.

To see if caregiving was truly beneficial to the caregiver, Brown and her colleagues scrutinized data from 1,688 couples who were at least 70 years old. Over a seven year period, the elderly couples were surveyed four times. During each survey, husbands and wives were asked whether they either provided or received help with such daily activities as eating, dressing, bathing, walking across the room, or using the toilet. They were also asked who performed household tasks such as grocery shopping, managing money and meal preparation.

Brown and her colleagues found that if you accounted for the negative impact of stressing over a loved one’s illness, that caregiving actually led to longer life. During the course of the study, people who spent at least 14 hours a week caring for a sick spouse were almost 30 percent less likely to die during the study period than those who spent no time helping, according to the research recently published in Psychological Science.

A smaller study in the journal Stroke came to a similar conclusion. Researchers interviewed 75 people who spent an average of almost 37 hours per week caring for a loved one who had suffered a stroke. A full 90 percent of those interviewed reported that their caregiving enabled them to appreciate life more. Many also reported that it helped them develop a more positive attitude toward life.

When it came to stresses associated with caregiving, 44 percent said they felt “no strain” while 41 percent reported “some strain.” Video: Alzheimer’s offspring confront their own risk

The studies make sense to Kathy Yates, a 54-year-old executive from San Jose, Calif., who has been making regular trips to the East Coast for the past four months to help care for her ailing parents. Yates was laid off from her job in January and is thankful that it happened just when she was most needed — her stepmother had a stroke in December and her father caught a respiratory bug and died just months later.

“This has been one of the best experiences of my life,” Yates says. “I’m extraordinarily thankful for the time I’ve had with them and for the perspective the caregiving has given me. It helps me to not be overly anxious about my career because this is so concrete. You know you’re helping another human being. The rewards are palpable. It makes you feel like you’ve got a purpose in life.”

The only downside, Yates says, is the lack of respect caregivers get. “It’s a tragedy that it’s so undervalued by most people,” she adds.

The research by Brown and her colleagues fits in with results from studies showing that animals release higher levels of a hormone called oxytocin when they are parenting. That hormone leads to lower levels of stress-linked substances, Brown says. It also makes sense in light of studies showing that people who volunteer tend to live longer than those who don’t, she adds.

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Caregiving expert Victoria Raveis suspects that people might get even more health benefits from helping others if their labors were appreciated more by the public. They would be getting the added bonus of improved self-esteem, she explains.

“We’ve been studying adult daughters who are caring for older parents,” says Raveis, who is an associate professor of clinical sociomedical sciences and director of the aging and public health program at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. “And we’ve found that the caregiving makes them feel good about themselves and closer to their parents. It gives them strength.”

Besides, says Raveis, many of the tasks involved in caregiving are simple and straightforward. “You can have closure on a task,” she adds. “You’ve done something and you see that what you’ve done is making a difference. That gives you a sense of accomplishment and control.”

Linda Carroll is a health and science writer living in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, Health magazine and SmartMoney.

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