Caring for a family member or loved one with a serious illness is no easy feat. While so much effort goes into providing care for the person who is sick, many carers know it can also have a significant impact on their own physical and mental wellbeing.
A new study published in The Gerontologist Journal by John Hopkins Medicine researchers states that while many articles and studies have focused on the toll caring can have on a carers health, the risk of inflammation and weakening of the immune system as a result of caring is “extremely small”.
Researchers analysed 30 papers on the levels of immune and inflammatory molecules in caregivers and found less than 1 per cent of the variability in immune and inflammation biomarkers is the result of caregiver stress.
“We’re not saying that family caregiving can’t be stressful, but there’s a notion that it’s so stressful that it causes deteriorating health and increased mortality. This can lead to fear of caregiving and a reluctance to care for loved ones in need,” first author David Roth said in a statement. “We’re challenging that narrative as being too exaggerated.”
There are around 2.7 million carers in Australia and 34 million in the United States, with previous studies linking caring for chronically ill, disabled or aged care family members to increased mortality, increased rates of psychiatric diseases, decreased immune function, decreased life span and even slower healing than other people.
Researchers wanted to take a fresh look at more than 30 years of papers on these topics and focused the latest study on papers around immune and inflammatory biomarkers. They also analysed databases of medical literature to find links between chronic stress of family caregiving to inflammatory biomarkers that can be detected through blood tests. After a review of 132 full texts, researchers narrowed the meta-analysis to 30 original data-based papers from 1987 to 2016.
Data from 1,848 caregivers, 3,640 non-caregivers and 86 biomarkers was analysed and researchers quickly discovered many of the studies were small. Of the 30 studies, 16 included less than 50 caregivers, with some as low as 11.
“A lot of these are small exploratory studies that can end up over interpreting what they find,” Roth explained.
The studies were also more likely to compare caregivers found in clinical settings with those recruited from aged facilities, churches and other community organisations. Because of this, researchers found 11 papers had a moderate ranking for potential bias.
“These people differ in many factors besides just who is a caregiver,” Roth said. “Many of the so-called controls are healthy, socially active volunteers.”
It was also found that the overall effect of caregiving on biomarkers was weak and of questionable clinical significance.
“It’s not that we didn’t find anything, but it’s a whisper of an effect, not nearly as large as what people have been led to believe,” Roth added.
Researchers hope the new study encourages more people to become open to becoming carers and for medical professions to stop viewing caregivers as vulnerable.
There are now calls for a large population-based study to be conducted which carefully matches controls and biomarkers to give even more detailed information about the link between caregiving and the immune system.
“Caregiving, if done right, can actually be an extremely beneficial, healthy activity that enhances your life because you’re engaging in pro-social behaviour,” Roth concluded.
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