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Poor Caregiver Mental Health Might Shorten Lifespan of MS Patients Under Their Care

July 6, 2017

The mental health of a caregiver is important when caring for a family member with multiple sclerosis (MS) or another neurodegenerative disease. A new study showed that poor caregiver mental health causes higher mortality rates among the patients they care for. The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and stresses that any attempts to improve the lives of people with such conditions must take caregiver health into account.

The study, “Poor caregiver mental health predicts mortality of patients with neurodegenerative disease,” included 176 patient-caregiver pairs with a variety of neurodegenerative diseases such as MS, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s, among others. Researchers noted that patients of caregivers with depression, anxiety, and other mental issues died an average of 14 months earlier than patients cared by family members in good mental health. Although researchers found a link, they said the data reveal nothing about causality. They couldn’t definitely say that patients died sooner because of the poor mental health state of their caregivers, or that the caregivers’ mental health became poor as a result of caregiving stress. Instead, the study “highlights the mutual influence both parties’ mental and physical states have on one another, and the extraordinarily high stakes that are involved,” said Robert Levenson, the study’s senior author and psychology professor at University of California, Berkeley.

However, earlier research has shown that poor caregiver mental health lowers the quality of care. Researchers speculated that the higher observed mortality could be linked to factors such as a lower awareness of patient health changes, poorer medication compliance, or missed medical appointments. It could also hurt the relationship between a caregiver and patient. Levenson and his team will continue following surviving caregiver-patient pairs to get a better insight into what factors really determine health outcomes, placing a particular focus on relationship dynamics.