Here’s good news if you’re taking care of a loved one. There could there be measurable benefits to your health, and to your brain in particular, from being a caregiver.
It’s practically become an article of faith that the reverse is true, that caring for an elderly relative is so stressful and draining that it takes a toll on your well-being. Some studies have shown that it can increase your risk of depression and heart disease, and even contribute to death.
But over several years of studying the differences between caregivers and non-caregivers in four locations, Boston University researchers found that while caregivers were indeed more stressed, they still had lower mortality rates than non-caregivers over eight years of follow-up.
They also did better physically – on tests like walking pace, grip strength and speed, high-intensity caregivers declined less than lower-intensity caregivers or non-caregivers over two years.
The same was true for cognitive functioning. Here, again, caregivers did significantly better on memory tests than did non-caregivers followed over two years. Though the groups were about the same average age, in their early to mid-80s, caregivers scored at the level of people who were 10 years younger.
Gerontologists have already recognized that caregivers can gain satisfaction and confidence. But they say it’s news that caregivers can walk faster or recall more words on a memory tests. It’s possible that the demands of caregiving make them stronger than women of the same ages who don’t undertake those tasks. Plus there’s the whole matter of people benefiting from having a purpose.