BCBS found that caregivers were more likely to suffer hypertension (64%) and obesity (50%), as well as mental health disorders like major depression (37%) and anxiety (34%). (Photo: Shutterstock)

The family members who provide unpaid care for loved ones are paying for their kindness with poorer health, according to a new study by the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association. The federation’s report, “The Impact of Caregiving on Mental and Physical Health,” used BCBS claims data to analyze the overall health of members who were caring for a close family member compared to those who were not. It found that caregivers’ health is 26% poorer than people who aren’t taking on those responsibilities.

Related: How caregiving for an aging loved one affects employee productivity

The study is based on 6.7 million BCBS members who are caring for a spouse or child. Respondents’ health was determined by the BCBS Health Index and the prevalence of stress-related conditions.

“Caregivers continue to play a vital, often unheralded, role in helping ensure the health of our members, our communities, and our nation as a whole,” Vincent Nelson, chief medical officer at BCBSA, said in a statement. “This new data only reinforces our shared commitment to ensuring that these caregivers receive the resources, initiatives and support they need to get and stay healthy.”

BCBS found that caregivers were more likely to suffer hypertension (64%) and obesity (50%), as well as mental health disorders like major depression (37%) and anxiety (34%).

The report included a separate survey conducted by ARCHANGELS, a national organization connecting caregivers to resources, found caregivers are coping with stress in unhealthy ways. Nearly one in five are using alcohol or medication to cope, while half are turning to food.

“Being a caregiver is one of the most important jobs many of us will ever do. It’s also one of the hardest – with profound physical and mental health impacts,” Alexandra Drane, co-founder and CEO at ARCHANGELS, said in a statement. “So, the first and most important step we all need to take, is to check in on ourselves and our loved ones.”

Some reassuring news out of the report: Although caregivers have poorer health overall as a result of their duties, they are proactive about their health in other ways. BCBS found that caregivers were 26% more likely to have a wellness visit and 48% more likely to get a cancer screening than non-caregiving peers.

Other key findings:

  • Unsurprisingly, COVID-19 has had an impact on caregiving. A quarter of caregivers said their stress has gone up with the pandemic as they struggle to balance work and family.
  • Caregiving affects demographics differently. The BCBS Health Index fell 5.6 points for majority Black communities, and 4.4 points in majority Hispanic communities, compared to a 2.1 point drop in white communities.
  • Income had a less profound influence on overall health. The BCBS Health Index fell 2.8 points for low-income caregivers, just higher than middle-income (-2.2 points) and high-income (-2 points) caregivers.
  • The generation that had to return to their parents’ homes as adults is paying for it now. Stress-related conditions like hypertension were more prevalent among millennials (82%), as well as hospitalizations (59%) and ER visits (33%).

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