Taking on the role of caregiver for a loved one can be a burdensome task, but there is some evidence that this type of role can be beneficial for one’s health. In a recent study, investigators aimed to show how mastery of one’s environment is important for the connection between caregiving and longevity.
Seventy-one spousal caregivers age 52 to 89 participated in up to four interviews over 10 years. All participants performed caregiving duties for an older adult spouse diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment. In the interviews, caregivers reported the level of burden experienced from caregiving, personal mastery (or the ability to control events and one’s environment), and self-rated health. Researchers then compared responses to these measures based on caregiver mortality rates.
At first, results seemed to indicate that level of burden had no association with mortality, while mastery appeared to have an association with longevity. After digging further, however, the researchers found that burden and mastery interacted in an interesting way. Among caregivers who reported high levels of burden, those who also reported high levels of mastery had the greatest chance of experiencing improved longevity, while those who reported low levels of mastery had the highest mortality rates. Even after controlling for caregiver health and age, this effect remained. For those who reported low levels of burden, mastery did not influence longevity. Although older age and poor health of caregivers was related to higher mortality rate, controlling for these variables did not alter the effect of mastery on longevity.
These results are based on a small sample size and the study did not utilize a non-caregiver control group for comparison, so future research will need to confirm this finding. Nonetheless, this study highlights the importance of mastery in older adults who take on high levels of care responsibilities. Perceiving greater control over one’s environment may empower caregivers to be more confident in overcoming obstacles and to respond better in stressful situations. This could also lead to greater health benefits from the prosocial helping aspect of caregiving.
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Savla J, Wang Z, Zhu J, Brossoie N, Roberto KA, & Blieszner R. Mastery and longevity in spousal caregivers of persons with dementia. Journals of Gerontology: Social Sciences (2019). https://doi.org/10.1093/geronb/gbz028