Depression Among Cancer Caregivers Can Lead to Health Problems

July 5, 2017

A collaborative research study, based on survey results gathered by the American Cancer Society, has found a correlation between depressive symptoms in cancer caregivers and a decline in their physical health.

A collaborative research study among researchers at the American Cancer Society, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC), and the University of Miami has found a correlation between depressive symptoms in cancer caregivers and a decline in their physical health.

The study included data from 664 caregivers (mean age, 53.2 years) across the nation who were classified based on the number of years after their family members’ cancer diagnosis: 2 years (T1), 5 years (T2), and 8 years (T3). These were survey results from the American Cancer Society’s National Quality of Life Survey for Caregivers. The study outcome was physical health of the caregiver, which was assessed from T1 through T3. Self-reporting predictors at T1 included demographics (age, sex, education, income, relationship to patient, and employment status), patient cancer severity, and caregiver psychosocial factors (caregiving stress, caregiving esteem, social support, and depressive symptoms).

While in the early years (T1) caregivers reported slightly better physical health than the control population, this advantage declined over 6 years. A significant determinant of a caregiver’s initial physical health included demographic factors, patient cancer severity, and T1 caregiving stress (P ≤ .03). However, while depressive symptoms were unrelated to the caregiver’s initial physical health, they predicted a decline in health (P = .004).

“Adverse effects of depression on physical health have been well-documented in the general population,” the authors write. “These findings extend evidence to the cancer caregiving context, known to have many psychosocial stressors and challenges, and highlight the importance of depression specifically to caregivers’ premature physical health decline.”

“Identifying caregivers in need, and connecting these caregivers to effective and accessible psychosocial services, are imperative next steps to improve comprehensive care for families facing cancer,” said study author Kelly M. Shaffer, PhD, of MSKCC.