By DAVID J. HILL
Published December 7, 2023
As people continue to live longer, more and more family members and friends are being thrust into caregiver roles. And that invites the question: How does this impact the individuals caring for a loved one?
A new UB study of nearly 160,000 postmenopausal women provides some clues. Namely, being a caregiver seems to help those providing care. In fact, caregiving was associated with a 9% lower risk of death from any cause over an average follow-up of 17.5 years, according to the study’s findings, published last month in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
“The ‘why’ is not known,” says Michael LaMonte, corresponding author on the study and research professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Environmental Health, School of Public Health and Health Professions.
“Some believe that one need be of a certain level of health to be able to provide care to another. It’s the so-called healthy worker effect, which, if true, would give caregivers an advantage over non-caregivers, on average, in terms of disease risks,” LaMonte says.
But researchers tried to look at that using the data available and came up empty. “There was not a clear indication that a ‘healthy caregiver’ phenomenon was the explanation for the lower mortality risk observed in caregivers compared to non-caregivers,” he says. “We need more investigation to clarify what might be the answer underlying better health outcomes in these folks.”
Another line of reasoning suggests that being a caregiver provides a sense of purpose and enhances the individual’s physical and emotional health characteristics, which might benefit the person providing care, LaMonte adds.
Still, the findings are significant given that women aged 65 and older are the fastest-growing subgroup in the U.S., meaning the burden of caregiving — and its impact on health — will be substantial in the years to come. Data from the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and the National Alliance for Caregiving found that in 2020, more than 53 million Americans over the age of 18 provided unpaid care to an adult. In addition, women represent more than 60% of caregivers in the U.S, and more than 35% of current U.S. caregivers are over age 65.
The study’s first author is Prachi Chavan, who conducted the research at UB as a postdoctoral fellow in epidemiology and environmental health with Jean Wactawski-Wende, dean of the School of Public Health and Health Professions and a SUNY Distinguished Professor in epidemiology and environmental health. Chavan is now an assistant professor at Eastern Virginia Medical School.
Chavan and her colleagues used data compiled from 158,987 participants aged 50 to 79 in the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI), a long-term national health study funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute that initially focused on cardiovascular disease, cancers and fractures but has since been expanded to address a broad array of questions on women’s health and aging.
In the study, 31.8% of women died during follow-up, and women who reported being a caregiver over two assessments 10 years apart had a 9% lower risk of dying from any cause compared with non-caregivers. Caregiving was also associated with lower risks of death from cardiovascular disease or cancer.
The associations did not differ according to caregiving frequency or when participants were stratified by age, race-ethnicity, depressive symptoms, optimism or living status.
LaMonte will present the study’s findings Dec. 7 at a symposium on advancing aging-related efforts at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB, at which Greg Olsen, acting director of the New York State Office for the Aging, will serve as keynote speaker.
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