Contrary to popular belief, a new study suggests that being a caregiver for a family member with a disability may lead to a longer life.

In a study looking at data on more than 7,000 people — about half of whom were caring for a loved one with a disability or chronic illness — researchers found that caregivers saw a nine-month increase in life expectancy.

“Taking care of a chronically ill person in your family is often associated with stress, and caregiving has been previously linked to increased mortality rates,” said David Roth, director of the Johns Hopkins University Center on Aging and Health and first author of the study published this month in the American Journal of Epidemiology. “We did not find any subgroup of caregivers in the (study) sample that appeared to be vulnerable to increased mortality risks.”

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Roth and his colleagues compared data on 3,503 family caregivers to that of 3,503 non-caregivers. All of those studied were over age 45 and the two groups were matched based on demographics, health history, health behaviors and other factors.

After six years, “significantly fewer” caregivers had died compared to the non-caregivers, the study found, with caregivers experiencing “an 18 percent reduced rate of death.”

The researchers did not find any groups of caregivers who failed to see greater longevity, but they acknowledged that their results may not extend to all types of caregivers.

“If highly stressful situations can be avoided or managed effectively, caregiving may actually offer some health benefits for both the care recipients and the caregivers, including reduced risk of death for those providing care,” Roth said. “Public discussions of caregiving should more accurately balance the potential risks and gains of this universal family role.”