Caregiving may help reduce depression risk, study finds

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When we think of taking care of an aging parent or spouse, it’s common to believe it’s a direct path to feeling stressed or depressed. However, a new study challenges this view.

Published in Advances in Life Course Research, this study presents a different angle: the depression often seen in caregivers comes more from the serious health issues their loved ones face, rather than from the act of caregiving itself.

Sae Hwang Han, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin, explains that there’s a common belief that caregiving is mostly negative, a constant source of stress that leads to poor health and unhappiness.

But, as Han points out, this isn’t the whole picture. In fact, recent studies have shown that people who take care of others often live longer than those who don’t. Many caregivers also find deep meaning and purpose in their role.

Han was intrigued by these conflicting views, which led him to conduct his own research. In most studies, caregivers are compared directly with non-caregivers, which can be misleading.

After all, having a loved one with serious health issues is already a sad and challenging situation. It’s not surprising that people in these circumstances might feel more depressed than those who don’t face such challenges.

To get a clearer understanding, Han focused on adults over 50 with living mothers. He observed changes in their mental health as some of their mothers developed disabilities or cognitive problems, requiring them to become caregivers.

Han discovered that while these adult children did feel more depressed as their mothers’ health worsened, becoming caregivers didn’t increase their depression.

In fact, caregiving seemed to provide some protection against the distress caused by their mothers’ health issues.

A similar study in 2021, involving spouses who were caregivers, found comparable results.

About 20% of Americans are in a caregiving role for an adult with health needs, and nearly half of those over 50 care for older adults. Han emphasizes that while caregiving can be stressful, it’s also an opportunity for growth and resilience.

It’s crucial to remember that caregiving, though demanding, isn’t solely a negative experience. Yes, it’s stressful, but it can also be a source of strength and personal growth.

Han’s work, supported by the Center on Aging and Population Sciences and elsewhere, highlights the need for continued support for caregivers, not just as a duty, but as a potentially fulfilling part of life.

If you care about mental health, please read studies about how dairy foods may influence depression risk, and B vitamins could help prevent depression and anxiety.

For more information about mental health, please see recent studies that ultra-processed foods may make you feel depressed, and extra-virgin olive oil could reduce depression symptoms.

The research findings can be found in journal Advances in Life Course Research.

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