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Is Family Caregiving Associated With Inflammation or Compromised Immunity? A Meta-Analysis

Background and Objectives Family caregiving stress has been widely reported to have negative effects on circulating biomarkers of immune system function and inflammation. Our goals were to systematically review this literature and conduct a meta-analysis on the extracted effects. Research Design and Methods A systematic search of published studies comparing caregivers and noncaregivers on biomarkers measured from blood samples was conducted in the PubMed, Embase, and Cochrane databases. This search identified 2,582 articles and abstracts. After removing duplicative papers and studies not meeting inclusion criteria, 30 articles were identified that reported analyses on 86 relevant biomarkers from 1,848 caregivers and 3,640 noncaregivers. Results Random-effects models revealed an overall effect size across all biomarkers of 0.164 SD units (d). A slightly larger overall effect (d = 0.188) was found for dementia caregivers only. Immune system comparisons yielded somewhat larger differences than inflammation comparisons. Most studies used small convenience samples, and effect sizes were larger for studies with moderate or high bias ratings than for studies with low bias ratings. No significant associations were found in studies that used population-based samples. Discussion and Implications Caregivers had small but significantly reduced immune system functioning and greater inflammation than noncaregivers, but associations were generally weak and of questionable clinical significance. The absence of clear associations from low bias studies and population-based studies underscores concerns with possible selection biases in many of the convenience samples. Population-based studies that assess biomarkers before and after the onset of caregiving might add much clarity to this literature. 

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Oxford university press
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The Gerontologist
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