Parents of children with developmental disabilities are experiencing health consequences stemming from their caregiving responsibilities, a first-of-its-kind study suggests.

Researchers found that parents of those with developmental disabilities have higher blood pressure than those with typically developing children. Given the risk of cardiovascular disease facing such parents, the finding “reinforces the notion that caregiving is hazardous to one’s health,” researchers report in the study published this month in the journal Research in Developmental Disabilities.

For the study, researchers followed a group of 35 parents of children with developmental disabilities and a control group of 30 other moms and dads. All of the parents wore a blood pressure monitor for 24 hours and each responded to questions about themselves, their stress level, the types of behaviors their child displays and the extent of support they receive from others.

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Overall parents of kids with developmental disabilities reported a higher level of perceived stress, more challenging behaviors and less social support. What’s more, the parents of kids with special needs had higher blood pressure on average at all points during the 24-hour period, the study indicates.

Significantly, when researchers controlled for various factors, they found that challenging behaviors and stress level were not associated with the blood pressure level recorded, but the amount of social support was.

“We found these parents, who were mostly caring for children with autism and Down’s syndrome, were more stressed and had less social support had higher blood pressure than other parents,” said Stephen Gallagher of the University of Limerick in Ireland who led the study. “More importantly it was reporting of lower social support that seemed to explain the higher blood pressure in these caring parents.”

The study is the first to directly measure and compare the blood pressure of these two groups of parents, researchers said.

Gallagher and his colleagues said the findings highlight the need for better supports for caregivers.

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