It is a well-known fact that taking on the role of the primary caregiver for a loved one is often so stressful and draining that it can take a toll on your well-being, increasing your risk for chronic stress, depression, and illness and resulting in what is known as "caregiver burnout."
The idea that caregiving could actually provide health benefits then seems quite counterintuitive. However, Dr. Lisa Fredman, a Boston University epidemiologist, and her colleagues, have found that caregivers do reap real physical and cognitive rewards.
Using a sample of caregivers and non-caregivers from Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis and Portland, Dr. Fredman and her team found that while caregivers are indeed more stressed than non-caregivers, they also tend to have lower mortality rates on average over the eight years of follow-up.
In another study looking at about 900 women from this sample, caregivers seemed to benefit physically from their roles. In fact, those classified as high-intensity caregivers (e.g. those who assist their loved ones with the majority of their activities of daily living (ADLs), such as toileting, dressing, bathing and instrumental activities of daily living (IADLs), such as housekeeping and transportation) were found to be more physically fit than low-intensity caregivers and non-caregivers, performing better on tests like walking pace, chair-stand speed and grip strength. Non-caregivers had the lowest levels of physical functioning.
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A third study looked at the relationship between caregiving and cognitive performance. Once again, though caregivers reported greater stress levels than non-caregivers they also performed significantly better on memory and processing speed tests than non-caregivers over the two years they were followed; both groups were about the same average age, but caregivers scored at the level of individuals 10 years their junior!
While her results suggest that caregivers may stay stronger than women of the same age who don't take on such a role, we must take study limitations into account. For one thing, Dr. Fredman's definition of a caregiver includes anyone who performs just one IADL or ADL, lumping together those who may help a loved one with cooking and those who may provide more hands-on help with bathing or around-the-clock care for someone with Alzheimer's.
In addition, because randomization is impossible in such a study, the results may be attributed to natural differences between the groups: women who are healthier may feel more able to take on the role of caregiver (e.g. healthy caregiver hypothesis).
In any case, most caregiving duties do require physical activity and the physical and cognitive benefits of exercise are well documented. Moreover, caregiving often involves complex thought and multi-tasking --keeping track of medications, finances and appointments -- which are both mentally stimulating. Overall, the burdens and benefits of caregiving likely depend on the individual situation and it's always important to monitor your well-being if you are the primary caregiver for a loved one.