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Could Caring for Others Help You to Live Longer?

By Carol Church, Writer, Family Album
Reviewed by Suzanna Smith, PhD, Department of Family, Youth, and Community Sciences, University of Florida

Preparing meals…taking care of errands…arranging doctor appointments…driving, cleaning, maybe even helping with personal hygiene. Being a caregiver for a family member with a chronic illness or disability involves plenty of work, and sometimes it can be stressful and taxing. In fact, some studies have found that physical and mental health can suffer when people take on caregiving responsibilities.

In spite of these negative impressions about the pressures of caregiving, however, new research also suggests that caregivers may actually experience some health benefits from being a caregiver.

These contradictory findings are pretty interesting. A recent large study from Johns Hopkins University looked into the question further, following about 6000 adults, most of whom were around age 60 or 65, for several years. About half were caring for family members during this entire time, while the rest were not acting as caregivers. In other ways, however, the groups were very similar, allowing the researchers to make some good comparisons between caregivers and noncaregivers.

Surprisingly, researchers discovered that after six years, significantly more people in the noncaregiver group had passed away. It seems that being a caregiver was actually protecting people’s health, at least in this sample.

Why would this be? Researchers suggest that it could be because the act of caregiving encourages people to be more active themselves. Or, perhaps it creates positive feelings in the person providing care.

It’s also important to note that less than 20% of caregivers in this study reported high levels of strain from caregiving. Also, only 10% were caring for someone with dementia. However, these same numbers remind us that caregiving does include a broad range of scenarios.

Keeping this diversity in mind, as well as the possible benefits of caregiving, may encourage some to consider caring for loved ones. While caregiving can sometimes be difficult, it offers rewards as well.

(Photo credit: Grandma and grandpa by daily invention. CC BY 2.0, cropped from original.)

Further Reading

  • Caregiver Action Network–Providing education, support and resources to all types of caregivers.
  • Family Care Navigator–This tool from the Family Caregiving Alliance can help caregivers across the country locate a variety of services. Also includes a valuable Q and A section.
  • Caregiving.com–Tips, brochures, online support groups, and articles for caregivers of all kinds.