Caregiving was associated with a lower risk of death in older women in the U.S., according to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
"Our hypothesis is that caregiving might provide a sense of purpose and/or fulfillment of sociocultural-related responsibility to family, as well as potentially enhancing aging resiliency factors in the physical and psychologic health domains," corresponding author of the study Michael J. LaMonte, PhD, a professor of the University at Buffalo-SUNY School of Epidemiology and Public Health in New York, told Fox News Digital.
Along with a team of researchers from several universities across the country, LaMonte analyzed nearly 159,000 women between the ages of 50 and 79 over a 20-year span, all of whom were enrolled in the long-term national health study known as the Women’s Health Initiative.
The women who reported themselves as caregivers had a 9% lower risk of dying from any cause compared to the non-caregivers, according to the study findings.
The researchers also found that the caregiving group had a lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease or cancer. The associations didn’t vary according to race-ethnicity, age, depressive symptoms, optimism, living status or frequency of caregiving, the study authors stated in the findings.
Given the potential added stress of caring for a loved one, some may be surprised by these findings, LaMonte told Fox News Digital.
"The published scientific literature is somewhat mixed in this respect," he said.
"There have been studies that show worse physical and mental health profiles and increased risk of mortality among caregivers — however, there are also studies like ours that suggest caregiving might be favorably associated with health outcomes in caregivers."
As people are living longer and the aging U.S. population continues to grow, further research is needed into the effect of caregiving on an individual’s health, LaMonte told Fox News Digital.
"Caregiving has been identified by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a public health issue in an aging population," he said.
There is an "important knowledge gap" when it comes to understanding the health impact of being a caregiver, LaMonte noted — "especially with respect to older women caregivers."
Dr. Nancy Frye, PhD, a professor of psychology at the Long Island University School of Health Professions in Brookville, New York, was not involved with the study, but said there could be several reasons for these positive findings.
"There are risks and benefits of caregiving — and whether it increases or decreases mortality likely depends on many things."
"Even though some health factors were controlled for, it may be that the women who are up to being a caregiver might be healthier to begin with," she noted.
"Another possibility could be connected to a sense of purpose and feeling needed."
More research is needed, the professor said, to explore these associations.
One geriatrician who was not involved with the study told Fox News Digital that many people are caregivers in some way or another.
"There are many different types of caregivers, and not all caregiving is the same," said Dr. Marzena Gieniusz, M.D., a geriatrician at Northwell Health on Long Island, New York.
"Some are associated with a higher caregiver burden than others, which can actually increase mortality," Gieniusz went on.
The act of caregiving, however, can also be rewarding and beneficial, she added, as it can offer a sense of value and purpose in life.
"As with anything else, there are risks and benefits of caregiving — and whether it increases or decreases mortality likely depends on many things, including the balance between those risks and benefits present in any particular case or group," Gieniusz said.
As for those who are currently caregivers, LaMonte emphasized the importance of taking time to care for themselves.
"Being aware of one’s own health is critical, regardless of the roles they play in their families and social networks," she said.
"Making time for regular health examinations and having prudence with self-health activities — such as nutrition, physical activity and mental well-being — is as critical for the caregiver as for the care recipient."