Can the stress of caregiving be expressed in numbers? Yes, and the reality is sobering for those who have devoted their lives to the well-being of others unable to care for themselves.

According to one study conducted by Ohio State University and the National Institute on Aging and subsequently published in the Journal of Immunology, adult children caring for their parents with Alzheimer’s disease — as well as parents caring for chronically ill children — may have their lifespans shortened by four to eight years. This finding should be taken to heart by all professional workers in every caregiving situation.

One detail that made the Ohio study particularly interesting to me was just how the conclusion was reached. Among other measures, the researchers focused on caregivers’ telomeres — the structures on the ends of chromosomes that shorten with every cell division and, therefore, provide a marker of a person’s cellular age. An analysis of blood samples from caregivers in the study — who also reported high levels of depression, a contributor to stress — revealed that their telomeres were significantly shorter than those of a group of non-caregivers of comparable age and background.

Stress and telomere length

The Ohio study added to what has become a growing body of research on the effects of stress on telomere length and aging. Over the past decade, findings published in scholarly journals consistently have shown that greater stress is associated with shorter telomeres. For example, a separate study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, examined a group of mothers, 39 of whom had chronically ill children and 19 with healthy children. The researchers found that the more years of caregiving the first group of mothers provided, the shorter their telomere length. Once again, the conclusion was that premature cellular aging in caregivers might be influenced by their chronic psychological stress.

Another study, this time appearing in Brain, Behavior and Immunity, examined 50 chronically stressed caregivers. Those caregivers who were more likely to describe themselves as feeling threatened in an acutely stressful situation were found to have shorter telomere length, on average.

Meanwhile, additional studies — not focused specifically on the plight of caregivers but looking more generally at the association of stress with telomere length — have been published in such journals as Psychosomatic Medicine and Biological Psychiatry. All have reached similar conclusions about the validity of the link between the two phenomena.

Tips for caregivers  

Fortunately for caregivers, there is a bright side to all of this: It has been shown that shortened telomeres actually can be lengthened again — by making positive lifestyle changes. For any caregiver concerned about cellular age, this means there is a path to lower cellular age and better overall health, based on the research:

  • Take a telomere test: Easy-to-administer telomere tests have been developed for consumers that measure telomere length. With such a test, a blood sample kit is sent to a laboratory, where the average telomere length in the test-taker’s white blood cells is measured using a proprietary technique.
  • Study the test results: Once the blood sample has been analyzed, a report is mailed to the test-taker that lists their average telomere length and a detailed self-assessment to help identify areas for lifestyle improvement.
  • Discuss the results with a doctor: If the test results indicate shortened telomeres and higher cellular age, then the caregiver has the option of sharing this information with a doctor and discussing with various lifestyle changes that can contribute to reduction of stress. Some test companies also offer lifestyle coaching and other resources.
  • Retake the test to chart progress: A telomere test can be taken repeatedly over time so that a caregiver can see whether positive lifestyle changes are affecting telomere length and cellular age.

There is no doubt that professional caregivers will continue to find themselves experiencing relatively high levels of stress on the job. But thanks to innovations in telomere testing, there is now a way to quantitatively measure the effect that stress is having on health — and it provides knowledge to make any necessary adjustments in work/life balance. The result may be not only better health for themselves but a better chance to help the residents and patients they have devoted their lives to caring for.

Jason Shelton is CEO of Telomere Diagnostics, which has developed the patented TeloYears genetic test to measure telomere length.

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