Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Caring for ill, elderly has reward — a longer life

I would think the personalities of the parents and children, and quality of the relationship, would have an effect.

By Linda Carroll
updated 8:20 a.m. ET, Tues., May 5, 2009

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.”
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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