Nursing's Hidden Blessings
Friday, April 17, 2009
By Wray Herbert
One in five Americans is currently taking care of another adult, voluntarily tending to an ill or frail loved one. And as the Baby-Boomer generation ages, that obligation is likely to increase. The burden takes a serious toll on caregivers, leading to poorer health and even an increased risk of death.
But what is it that actually takes the toll? Is it the physical wear-and-tear of feeding and bathing a needy relative? Is it simply that caregivers have too much work and too little time and energy? Or is it the emotional costs of watching a loved one deteriorate, or the anticipation of loss? Or all of this rolled together?
Interestingly, these possibilities have never really been sorted out—until now. A team of public health researchers, headed by Stephanie Brown at the University of Michigan, decided to explore these questions by examining the histories of more than 3000 elderly married people over several years. The couples were all living together in their own homes, but the level of neediness varied, as did the commitment of caring time. The researchers tracked the health and the survival rate of the caregivers, all 70 or older.
The results were interesting and a bit surprising. As reported in the April issue of the journal Psychological Science, those who were providing the most care for their spouses—14 or more hours a week—actually had a lower mortality rate than did those who had no care obligation. This was true regardless of the spouse’s neediness, including cognitive decline. This suggests that the health problems of caregivers may not result from the actual burden of caring. Indeed, caring may have a tonic effect under certain circumstances, which may offset the emotional toll of witnessing a spouse’s deterioration and worrying about life alone.
Why would that be? It’s not entirely clear, but it may be that the very act of giving acts as a buffer, moderating the untoward physical consequences of chronic stress, including immune dysfunction. It’s also possible that the hormones associated with helping—oxytocin, for example—actually help the body’s cells repair and store nutrients. Whatever the mechanism, it appears that nurturance is a blessing at the microscopic level.
For more insights into human nature, visit the “We’re Only Human” blog at www.psychologicalscience.org/onlyhuman. For more on healthy aging, see Wray Herbert’s recent “Mind Matters” column at Newsweek.com.
posted by Wray Herbert @ 10:56 AM