Finally some good news about caregiving!
I recently spoke with Dr. Lisa Fredman, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the Boston University School of Public Health, who has been studying the effects of caregiving on stress levels. She and her colleagues have been following about 1,000 older women, 375 of whom were caregivers. Not surprisingly, the caregivers showed significantly more stress than non-caregivers. What amazed me, though, was how that stress actually affected - or didn't affect - the women. Check out these surprising findings:
* While so-called "high-intensity" caregivers - those who helped someone with tasks such as using the toilet, dressing and bathing - reported the greatest stress levels, they also had the best physical functioning (assessed by such measures as walking speed, grip strength, and chair-stand speed) compared to low-intensity caregivers and non-caregivers. Non-caregivers reported the lowest levels of physical functioning.
* In looking at the effects of caregiving on mortality risk over 8 years, Dr. Fredman was shocked by the results. "Even though caregivers were more stressed than non-caregivers, they still had lower rates of mortality and declines in physical functioning," she says.
* A separate study looked at caregiving and cognitive performance. Dr. Fredman and Rosanna Bertrand, Ph.D. of Abt Associates Inc. in Cambridge, MA, found that caregivers performed better on tests of memory and processing speed than non-caregivers.
When I asked Dr. Fredman about the studies, she told me about her "healthy caregiver hypothesis." She thinks that perhaps older adults who become caregivers are healthier to begin with; that's why they are able to take on the strenuous mental and physical activities of caregiving in the first place. Besides, "If you are a caregiver and you don't stay healthy, you're more likely to give up that role,"she said.
In addition, because of the physical activity involved, caregivers may end up getting more exercise than people who aren't caring for someone. And that has been shown to have positive effects on physical and cognitive health and functioning. Also: Caregiving requires multi-tasking and managing complicated logistics and constantly changing conditions. While these things lead to stress, they may also help stimulate the brain and keep it functioning at a higher level.
Surprised? I was initially. But when I thought about these study results, they actually make sense based on my personal experience. While these studies were focused primarily on women in their 80's, I can certainly testify at the age of 50 that caregiving - especially high intensity caregiving as I'm doing - definitely challenges both my brain and physical skills. Multi-tasking is my middle name. I may feel like I'm constantly stressed and dropping balls as I try to juggle everything, but perhaps this role in my life is providing me with skills and health benefits that will ultimately prolong my life, or at least make me physically and cognitively healthier in the long run.