Postmenopausal caregivers may have lower death risk

Being a caregiver may provide a sense of purpose and enhances the individual's physical and emotional health characteristics, which might benefit the person providing care, says Michael LaMonte. (Credit: Getty Images)

Being a caregiver is associated with a 9% lower risk of death from any cause over an average follow-up of 17.5 years, a new study finds.

That suggests that being a caregiver not only helps those receiving care, but also those providing it, according to the study of nearly 160,000 postmenopausal women.

“The ‘why’ is not known,” says Michael LaMonte, a research professor in the epidemiology and environmental health department in the University at Buffalo’s 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,” says LaMonte, corresponding author of the study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

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 says.

Still, the findings are significant given that women aged 65 and older are the fastest-growing subgroup in the US, 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 US and more than 35% of current US caregivers are over age 65.

Prachi Chavan, who conducted the research as a postdoctoral fellow in epidemiology and environmental health, is the study’s lead author. 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.

Source: University at Buffalo