Association Between Informal Caregiving and Cellular Aging in the Survey of the Health of Wisconsin: The Role of Caregiving Characteristics, Stress, and Strain

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Abstract

The pathophysiological consequences of caregiving have not been fully elucidated. We evaluated how caregiving, stress, and caregiver strain were associated with shorter relative telomere length (RTL), a marker of cellular aging. Caregivers (n = 240) and some noncaregivers (n = 98) in the 2008–2010 Survey of the Health of Wisconsin, comprising a representative sample of Wisconsin adults aged 21–74 years, reported their sociodemographic, health, and psychological characteristics. RTL was assayed from blood or saliva samples. Median T and S values were used to determine the telomere-to-single copy gene ratio (T/S) for each sample, and log(T/S) was used as the dependent variable in analyses. Multivariable generalized additive models showed that RTL did not differ between caregivers and noncaregivers (difference in log(T/S) = −0.03; P > 0.05), but moderate-to-high levels of stress versus low stress were associated with longer RTL (difference = 0.15; P = 0.04). Among caregivers, more hours per week of care, caring for a young person, and greater strain were associated with shorter RTL (P < 0.05). Caregivers with discordant levels of stress and strain (i.e., low perceived stress/high strain) compared with low stress/low strain had the shortest RTL (difference = −0.24; P = 0.02, Pinteraction = 0.13), corresponding to approximately 10–15 additional years of aging. Caregivers with these characteristics may be at increased risk for accelerated aging. Future work is necessary to better elucidate these relationships and develop interventions to improve the long-term health and well-being of caregivers.

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