Researchers have uncovered a major clue that helps explain the link between chronic stress and illness. In this case, researchers at Ohio State University were looking at the stress that comes with caring for an elderly or sick loved one.
Often those folks are caring for kids and an aging parent at the same time, which compounds the stress. But here's what they found, that caregiver stress literally breaks down the immune system, threatening the health of the caregiver as well.
"We find the immune system is a central player here, the pathway is probably stress hormones, to the immune system, and then to the health effects, that care-givers have a greater incidence of infectious illness, particularly colds and flu," says Dr. Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, researcher.
The study of more than 200 people finds caregivers have higher blood levels of a chemical called IL6, compared to non caregivers. Increased levels of IL6 have been linked to serious illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
Researchers say they were surprised to find that the immune system didn't bounce back after the caregiver stopped that care-giving role. But instead, the damaging affects may linger indefinitely. Researchers estimate that more than seven million Americans are caregivers right now.
Earlier work by this research group showed that a person's stress levels can have a detrimental effect on how well certain vaccines immunize, that high stress levels can markedly slow wound healing, and that even short-term stressful events such as arguments and test-taking can weaken a person's immune status. The study also provided some preliminary data showing that African-American participants had higher levels of IL-6 than did non-African Americans.
The study was conducted at Ohio State University and the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research and is published in this week's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The project is the latest part of a long-term study of the health of spouses and others who care for patients with dementia and Alzheimer's disease.