We usually hear about the stress and strain of care-giving but a new study suggests caring for a partner could actually lengthen your life. Stephanie Brown and colleagues who conducted the new study say this is because past research has tended to conflate two issues: the act of care-giving itself, and the stress of worrying about an ailing loved one.
Between 1993 and 2000, Brown's team followed 1688 married couples, all aged over 70 at baseline, during which time 909 of the participants died. Crucially those participants who provided more than 14 hours per week care to their partner at baseline were at substantially reduced risk of dying over the course of the study compared with participants who provided no care.
It's not just that healthier people tend to provide more help. When the researchers included health at baseline and medical history in the statistical analyses, those participants providing more than 14 hours a week help were approximately 36 per cent less likely to die over the seven year period than non-carers.
The researchers aren't sure about the mechanism underlying the protective effects of providing care, but one theory they have involves the hormone oxytocin, known to be associated with caring behaviour. "Hormones that are causally linked to helping behaviour, such as oxytocin, decrease activity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (stress) axis, and contribute to cellular repair and storage of cell nutrients," they said.
It wasn't all good news. Consistent with past research, Brown's team also found that participants with less healthy partners tended to die earlier. This may seem to contradict the finding of a benefit of care-giving, but the two effects are possible because having a needy partner wasn't synonymous with giving care. Indeed, among participants who reported having one or more impairments, nearly half said they received no care at all.
It's worth noting that this study was based on participants who were healthy enough to still live at home and take part in a psychology survey. In contrast, past research showing the costs of care-giving has tended to involve participants looking after partners who are more seriously ill.
Brown, S., Smith, D., Schulz, R., Kabeto, M., Ubel, P., Poulin, M., Yi, J., Kim, C., & Langa, K. (2009). Caregiving Behavior Is Associated With Decreased Mortality Risk. Psychological Science, 20 (4), 488-494 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02323.x
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.