Beyond the Burden: The Presumed “Health Toll” of Caregiving Lacks A Solid Scientific Base

Stephanie Brown, PhD

March 7, 2014 - Most public policy designed to help people who care for loved ones is based on the assumption that caregiving is a heavy burden that negatively affects the physical and psychological health of caregivers. But in an article recently published in Social Issues and Policy Review Associate Professor Stephanie Brown, PhD and her colleague R Michael Brown, PhD called this assumption into question, arguing that well-designed studies more often support the hypothesis that caring for others has positive effects on caregivers’ health and mental health. They attributed positive health effects of caregiving to the fact that human beings are caregivers by nature, and they described a new model of caregiving that connects the neurobiology of caring behaviors to better health and well-being.

The authors quoted dire warnings from the CDC and AARP about the “tremendous toll” that caregiving exacts on the health of caregivers to indicate how ingrained the belief has become. They argued that this belief is based on thousands of scientific investigations that failed to control for confounding variables or acknowledge health benefits of caregiving embedded in reports of health costs. To counterbalance this “skewed assessment,” the authors offered the view that humans have evolved biological and psychological mechanisms for responding compassionately toward those in need and that this inherent caregiving system is manifested in the neural architecture of humans and other social animals. After offering evidence from a range of disciplines, the authors noted that it would be difficult to imagine that the human species would have survived “if the psychological and physical costs associated with helping had not been compensated by at least some beneficial consequences.”

They pointed to numerous empirical studies, including some of their own, showing that informal caregiving has been associated with reductions in anxiety and depression, increases in caregiver well-being, even reduced mortality. To explain these outcomes, the authors sketched out a model of human motivation that is altruistically responsive to the needs of close and interdependent others so long as adequate resources are available.

The authors concluded by pointing out the implications of their findings and theory for future research, for assessing and intervening on behalf of caregivers and for public policy. At a bare minimum, the authors concluded, people considering embracing the role of caregiver should have an accurate and balanced appraisal of the costs and benefits of caregiving.

The article, titled “Informal Caregiving: A Reappraisal of Effects on Caregivers,” was published on January 13, 2014 in Social Issues and Policy Review. Dr. Stephanie Brown is a member of the faculty of the Department of Psychiatry at Stony Brook University. Dr. R. Michael Brown is affiliated with Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma WA.