University of Washington School of Public Health

UW SPH News: Caregiver Stress Depends Largely on Genes, Upbringing

Caregiver Stress Depends Largely on Genes, Upbringing


Does caregiving cause stress? A new study from the UW Schools of Public Health and Medicine found that associations between caregiving and different types of psychological distress depend largely on a person's genes and upbringing, and less so on the difficulty of caregiving.

Dedra Buchwald

The results break the long-held belief that caregiving directly causes stress, researchers said. The study, published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, focused on 1,228 female twins from the University of Washington Twin Registry, 188 of whom were caregivers. While exposure to caregiving may influence distress, especially anxiety, researchers found that caregivers reporting depression and poorer mental health were most influenced by genes. Perceived stress, meanwhile, was strongly determined by the kind of environment a person was raised in.

"These results really reflect the power of twin studies in health research," said senior author Dr. Dedra Buchwald, professor of epidemiology and general internal medicine. "We replicated an association between caregiving and psychological distress that was already out there in the literature and that's important. But, because we had a twin sample, we were able to dig deeper and ask whether the relationship was consistent with cause and effect or whether it was partially attributed by shared genes and environments. Obviously we found the latter. It changes the picture of who we can help and how."

Said co-author Dr. Eric Strachan, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, "The idea is that there are genes and environmental circumstances that are driving both the distress and the tendency to end up as a caregiver. When we see the association between caregiving and distress, it seems common sense to think that caregiving is causing distress. But these twin data are telling us that family factors (genes and environment) are actually driving both and that's why they look correlated."

Lead author was Dr. Peter Vitaliano, professor of psychiatry and psychology. Dr. Jack Goldberg, research professor of epidemiology, was a co-author.