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Caring for a chronically ill or disabled family member has long been associated with stress, but a new study suggests that the practice gives those caregivers a survival advantage.

A study of 3,000 family caregivers showed no increase in health risk and a nine-month increase in life expectancy over the study’s six-year period.

“Taking care of a chronically ill person in your family is often associated with stress, and caregiving has been previously linked to increased mortality rates,” said David L. Roth, director of the Johns Hopkins University Center on Aging and Health and a study author.

“Our study provides important new information on the issue of whether informal family caregiving responsibilities are associated with higher or lower mortality rates as suggested by multiple conflicting previous studies,” he said.

For the results, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, Roth said researchers looked at caregivers from a large stroke study to see if they had differences in rates of death from all causes over a six-year period compared with noncaregivers that they were matched with using common variables such as demographics, health history and health behaviors.

Roth said many caregivers had enhanced self-esteem and received gratitude from their care recipients.

“Thus, when caregiving is done willingly, at manageable levels and with individuals who are capable of expressing gratitude, it is reasonable to expect that health benefits might accrue in those situations,” he said.

He didn’t rule out, however, that some caregivers might not be in manageable situations and may have an increased risk of death. More research is needed particularly on those caring for parents because it’s a growing population.