Stress of caring affects immune system
Jul 13, 2004 - 11:12:38 PM

Two new studies have found that chronic stress in elderly caregivers is linked with impaired immunity to disease.
People who are informal caregivers report considerable psychological distress, which may have adverse effects on their immunity to disease. This distress may contribute to the development of new diseases, or hasten the progression of existing conditions.

These two studies examined the effects of chronic caregiver stress on the spouses of dementia patients. They set out to
§ examine the relationship between caregiving and levels of cortisol and immunity to influenza
§ examine the effects of cognitive-behavioural stress management (CBSM) on distress, cortisol and immunity to influenza.

In the first study, 50 caregiving spouses and 67 non-caregiving controls were recruited. Assessments of distress, cortisol and immune responses to influenza vaccination were undertaken.

Significantly raised levels of distress and cortisol were found in caregivers compared with non-caregivers. Immune responses to the vaccine revealed that significantly fewer carers (16%) showed the expected response, which is a four-fold increase in antibodies, compared with non-caregivers (39%).

In the second study, 43 caregiving spouses and 27 non-caregiving controls were recruited. 16 caregivers were allocated to an eight-week CBSM programme, and 27 to a non-intervention group. Assessments of distress and cortisol were undertaken during the intervention period, and immune responses to influenza vaccination were assessed after the intervention.

Raised levels of distress were found in both caregiver groups compared with controls throughout the CBSM period. However, there were no between-group differences in cortisol.

Immune responses to the vaccine revealed that 50% of carers who received CBSM, 7% of non-intervention carers and 29% of controls produced a clinically appropriate response to the vaccination.

The authors of the study conclude that the impaired immunity found among elderly caregivers can be improved through stress management.

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