The Caregiver

Looking after a sick loved one can shorten your lifespan by years.

By Lybi Ma, published on October 6, 2008 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Sometimes, my mom can be a world-class martyr. Once she was sitting in the dark and I moved to turn on the light. She said, "Don't waste the electricity on me." What can I say? She's a pip. I guess she has a right to be that way, seeing that she's in her mid eighties. And though her elderly legs work fine and she's still fully mobile, the car keys are a distant memory for her. Honestly, nobody wants to be in the passenger seat when she runs over the azalea bush.

Fortunately for everyone, she has a great caregiver—my sister. I really don't know how my sis does it. She takes Mom grocery shopping and to the doctor without delay. Rain, wind, or heat, sis is there. We all know that care giving can take a huge toll. Still, my sister doesn't complain. One thing I remember reading is the small fact that if a parent needs care and you're not providing care, your mental health score goes down. But the same goes for those who are providing that care. If a parent needs care and you are providing it, your mental health score goes down, too.

It's a bummer either way.

In one study from Ohio State University and the National Institute of Aging, researchers show just how stressful care giving can be. In some cases, looking after a loved one can shorten one's life by years. In their study, the researchers examined blood samples of caregivers as well as non-caregivers, paying special attention to telomeres. This region of repetitive DNA is found at the ends of chromosomes, protecting the chromosomes from deterioration. When cells divide, an enzyme called telomerase helps repair the telomeres, keeping genetic information in place.

But as we age, telomeres shorten and the telomerase enzyme doesn't do its job. This deterioration is hastened among caregivers looking after loved ones with Alzheimer's disease. Their bodies' ability to repair aging cells is greatly compromised. The Ohio State and NIA researchers found that the lifespan of these caregivers was cut short by four to eight years.

Another study that appeared in the journal Biological Psychiatry shows that such stress can affect one's immune system, too. The researchers found that the pattern of gene expression is different among caregivers who have loved ones with cancer compared with those in a control group. According to that study, although both groups have similar cortisol levels, caregivers' white blood cells are not able to receive the signal from cortisol that tells them to shut down inflammation. And that inflammation alters their immune systems.

Fortunately, my mom doesn't have dementia or cancer. Instead, she keeps her telomeres intact and her immune system in gear by puttering in her garden every day. My sister is the first to note that Mom's lust for life is her saving grace. Come to think of it, Mom even putters in my sister's garden every other day—one full of roses and herbs and a peach tree to boot.