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The study by researchers at University of Limerick has shown that the chronic stress of caring can have a damaging effect on the health of caregivers
Tuesday, 21 June 2022

A study by researchers at University of Limerick has shown that the chronic stress of caring can have a damaging effect on the health of caregivers.

The research team, led by Professor Stephen Gallagher of UL with colleagues at University of Liverpool, found that caregivers who were initially healthy displayed a 33% greater risk of illness or disability just eight years later.

The findings of the study were published in the prestigious journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity - Health.

The researchers used data from over 471 healthy family carers and 2,151 non-carers who took part in the UK’s Understanding Society study in 2011 and 2019.

They discovered that while carers did not have any illnesses as the study began, they did eight-years later in comparison to those people who do not provide care to others.

In fact, the data shows that caregivers displayed higher levels of ‘allostatic load’, a term referring to the negative impact of chronic stress on immune, cardiovascular and metabolic system functioning.

Higher levels of allostatic load have been found to be predictive of morbidity and mortality, which may carry further health risks for these caregivers.

Professor Stephen Gallagher, lead author and director of the Study of Anxiety Stress and Health Lab at UL, said the findings showed the likelihood that that the chronic stress of caring for others could be damaging to caregivers’ own health.

“Caregiving to a sick or disabled family member or other relative is a well-known chronic stressor, as the stresses and strains of caring can be enduring and persistent in nature,” explained Professor Gallagher.  

“When such chronic stress continues unhindered it becomes physiologically and psychologically toxic for the body, and this is what this study suggests,” he added.

Using the data, the researchers examined whether those carers who participated would have greater dysregulation in immune, cardiovascular and metabolic functioning, i.e. higher levels of allostatic load in 2011, as well as greater risk of being diagnosed with a chronic health condition eight-years later.

The authors found that in these previously disease free groups, 24% of carers compared to 16.5% of non-carers reported having a chronic health condition such as heart disease, diabetes, asthma at follow-up in 2019.

Carers had a 33% greater risk of developing a chronic condition. Moreover, allostatic load was associated with this excess risk and more interestingly, when the authors checked to see if it mattered for health if someone continued caring or stopped caring in 2011 it did not - implying that there seems to be a health scarring effect of caring that goes beyond its cessation.

Professor Kate Bennett, from the University of Liverpool, a co-author on the study, said that these results “highlight the relevance of supporting family carers early on, as they deal with the stresses and strains of caring.

“This is really important as the economic costs associated with family caring run into billions annually, and if family carers get ill themselves and are unable to care for their loved ones, then that will cost the exchequer as institutionalisation is more likely.”

Dr Nikki Dunne, Research Officer with Family Carers Ireland, added: “From our daily interactions with family carers right across Ireland, we can clearly see the negative impact that caring can have on a person’s health and wellbeing. When someone has to constantly battle for essential supports and services, this health risk is exacerbated.

“The cost to family carers of not being properly supported or recognised by the State is isolation, poor health and increasingly, carer burnout.”