Stress of Caregiving Could Weaken Immune System, Study Finds
Long-term stress associated with caring for elderly people with dementia may damage elderly caregivers' immune systems and lead to an increased risk of heart disease, some cancers, arthritis, diabetes, osteoporosis or other age-related diseases, according to a study to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the Wall Street Journal reports. Ronald Glaser and Janice Kiecolt-Glaser of the Ohio State University College of Medicine took blood samples over a six-year period from 119 elderly people who were caring for or had cared for spouses with dementia. Researchers monitored the levels of a protein called interleukin-6, or IL-6, which stimulates the immune system to ward off disease (Windham, Wall Street Journal, 7/1). When the caregivers were compared with 106 elderly people in a control group, researchers found that levels of IL-6 had increased in the caregivers group almost four times as quickly, indicating an increased risk for disease. IL-6 levels, which increase with age, were unnaturally high in the caregivers group; according to the study, the caregivers, who were about age 70, had levels appropriate for a 90-year-old person. IL-6 levels were highest among African-American caregivers. In addition, researchers found that the protein levels remained disproportionately high in the caregivers three years after the spouse with dementia had died (Fackelmann, USA Today, 7/1). Glaser said, "Stress of caregivers is psychologically and physically aging them more than their noncaregiving counterparts." However, John Cacioppo, a professor with the Department of Psychology and the Institute for Mind and Biology at the University of Chicago, said that although there is "nothing wrong" with the researchers' claims, Glaser and Kiecolt-Glaser "have not shown that [a high IL-6 level] causes these diseases. They're showing a reason to study this further." In about 22.4 million U.S. households at least one person provides care to an elderly person, according to the National Alliance for Caregiving (Wall Street Journal, 7/1).
CBS' "Evening News" yesterday reported on the study. The segment includes comments from Kiecolt-Glaser and Glaser (Kaledin, "Evening News," CBS, 6/30). The full segment is available online in RealPlayer. In addition, NBC's "Nightly News" yesterday reported on the study. The segment includes comments from Kiecolt-Glaser (Bazell, "Nightly News," NBC, 6/30). The full segment is available online in RealPlayer.This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.