Caregivers for Patients with Cancer at Risk of Depression, Poor Health

Cancer caregivers with high depression symptoms are twice as likely to experience declining health.

Depression is common among patients with potentially fatal conditions, such as cancer. Despite the growing number of treatment options, patients may be concerned with their conditions, costs, and becoming a burden on family members.

Findings from a new study published by Cancer suggest that caregivers for patients with cancer also may be at a higher risk of depression and a corresponding decline in health.

The authors found that compared with controls, depression symptoms among caregivers were an indicator of a decline in physical health.

These findings suggest that increasing efforts to screen and treat caregivers with depression may prevent early death among this population, according to the study. Additionally, treating caregivers may benefit patients with cancer who rely on a significant amount of help from caregivers.

This study is the longest follow-up analysis that explored the physical health of caregivers following a cancer diagnosis for a loved one.

Cancer caregiving has previously been linked to declining health. To determine factors associated with the decline, the investigators looked at data from 664 caregivers participating in the American Cancer Society’s National Quality of Life Survey for Caregivers. The researchers analyzed changes in physical health from 2 to 8 years after a loved one was diagnosed with cancer.

At 2 years, the health of caregivers was slightly higher than the national rate; however, over the next 6 years, this population was observed to have a slight decline in health.

The authors found that experiencing symptoms of depression was the only predictor of a decline in physical health, suggesting that early intervention is needed.

They also discovered that those with high depressive symptoms have twice the rate of physical health decline compared with caregivers with an average level of symptoms, according to the study.

“Adverse effects of depression on physical health have been well-documented in the general population,” the authors wrote. “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.”

The authors believe that screening caregivers for distress should be adopted by more providers, in addition to implementing the screening for patients, according to the study. These approaches can include technology-based assessments that use questionnaires to assess depression symptoms.

"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 lead researcher Kelly M. Shaffer, PhD.