It’s considered common knowledge by many that the act of being a caregiver can be an amazing strain upon your health. Like many pieces of folk wisdom, it may not be the most accurate take on things.
A recent study, “Mortality Associated with Caregiving, General Stress, and Caregiving-Related Stress in Elderly Women,” points toward possible mental and physical benefits of being a caregiver. Lisa Fredman, Ph.D., a Boston University epidemiologist, co-authored the study with Jane A. Cauley, Ph.D., Marc Hochberg, M.D., M.P.H., Kristine E. Ensrud, M.D., M.P.H.; and Gheorghe Doros, Ph.D.
While stress is an almost universally reported downside to caregiving, the requirements, both physical and cognitive, seem to be influential as well. Note this portion of the paper’s abstract:
These results may be explained by the ‘healthy caregiver’ hypothesis. That is, elderly adults who become caregivers are healthier and more physically active than their peers. Caregivers may stay active through performing caregiving tasks, or they may maintain their health in order to continue assisting their care recipient.
It’s not just that one particular study, either. Paula Span at The New York Times notes the results of a similar one:
In another study of about 900 women drawn from the same four-site sample, even those classified as high-intensity caregivers — because they performed more functions for their dependent relatives — maintained stronger physical performance than non-caregivers. On tests like walking pace, grip strength and the speed with which they could rise from a chair, the high-intensity group declined less than lower-intensity caregivers or non-caregivers over two years.
‘That was a shocker,’ Dr. Fredman said.
Even with modern assistance technologies like rolling transport chairs and bathtub lifts, it’s still quite a job to care for the physically infirm. News that there might be some positive health effects from doing so is welcome news indeed. As thousand upon thousands of boomers reach age 65 each day, the projected future need for caregivers expands proportionately.
How the pros and cons balance out is still an open question. Whether the deleterious effects of caregiving’s physical strain are outweighed by the constant exercise or not is something that will have to await more hard data. Even so, it’s nice to see some of the pros coming to light on a subject that is too often considered a trial.