Most research shows that it does — in spades. But a small study on a limited sample suggests how family caregivers handle distress is influenced more by their genes and family history than by the difficulty of the caregiving role. Those are the findings of Peter Vitaliano, a professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Washington, and his colleagues after studying more than a thousand female twins, some of whom were caregivers.
According to Vitaliano, how your parents handled stress (such as a job loss or illness) is the greatest indicator of how you’re likely to handle stress. (Your reaction to stress also depends on your coping skills, social support and financial resources.)
If you never suffered depression before you became a caregiver, the likelihood you’ll be depressed after you become one isn’t markedly increased. “But if you have a history of depression or vulnerability to it, it’s like mixing oil and fire,” says Vitaliano. “It makes the risk even greater.” Interesting: A caregiving twin was more anxious than a non-caregiving sister. Vitaliano says that’s because caregiving influences anxiety but not depression.
This new study confirms Vitaliano’s prior research. He had found that 20 percent of caregivers had mild to severe depression versus 2 to 3 percent of non-caregivers. “While that’s a big difference, 80 percent didn’t get depressed,” he says. “If caregiving caused depression, it would be much higher than 20 percent.”
Researchers examined female twins, using almost twice as many identical as fraternal twins. Among the pairs, 188 were caregivers. If you’re wondering why males weren’t included in the study, it’s because UW researchers couldn’t find enough male twins who were caregivers. The study was published last month in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine.
With constraints on government health care funding and a galloping increase in an aging population that will require more caregivers — not to mention the 12 million Americans who experts predict will have developed Alzheimer’s by 2030 — studies like Vitaliano’s may lead to treatment interventions and public policies that can focus on the most vulnerable caregivers.
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