Spouse Has Dementia? You're at Risk, Too

Study Shows Husbands and Wives Who Are Caregivers Have Higher Risk of Dementia

By Charlene Laino
WebMD Health News

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

July 15, 2009 (Vienna, Austria) -- A first-of-its-kind study suggests that spouses of people with dementia are at substantially increased risk of developing dementia themselves.

Researchers followed more than 1,200 couples for 10 years. They found that wives who cared for husbands with dementia were nearly four times more likely to develop dementia than wives of men who didn't have dementia.

Husband caregivers were almost 12 times more likely to develop dementia than husbands of women who were cognitively healthy, says researcher Maria Norton, PhD, associate professor of gerontology at Utah State University, Logan.

Dementia isn't contagious, of course. "But the amount of stress involved in caring for a spouse with dementia is tremendous," and stress is a known risk factor for dementia, says Ralph Nixon, MD, PhD, a psychiatrist and Alzheimer's disease expert at New York University and vice chairman of the Medical & Scientific Advisory Council at the Alzheimer's Association.

People who are stressed out are also less likely to eat a healthy diet and exercise, both of which are critical to brain health, he tells WebMD. Nixon was not involved with the research.

The study was presented at the Alzheimer's Association 2009 International Conference on Alzheimer's Disease.

Norton tells WebMD that "one might think the couples' shared environment could explain the findings. But we controlled for shared environment, education, and genetics, and ruled all those factors out."

Why are husband caregivers at so much greater risk of developing dementia than the wife caregivers?

Norton believes it's because older men tend to rely on their wives to keep up social ties with relatives and friends. "The social support system shrinks if the wife has dementia," she says.

Also, men often fail to go to the doctor without some nudging from their wives, Norton says. This places them at higher risk for high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and other conditions that may raise the risk of dementia.

No matter how sick your spouse is, take care of your own health too, she advises.

Norton offers this advice for adult children of people with dementia:

  • Visit frequently and relieve the caregiving parent from his or her duties so he or she can get some rest.
  • Make sure the healthy parent gets out and engages in social activities.
  • Ensure both parents get to the doctor regularly.

"We tend to nurture the sick. But you have to be aware of the burden that caregiving is placing on the healthy parent," she says.

SOURCES: Alzheimer's Association 2009 International Conference on Alzheimer's Disease, Vienna, Austria, July 11-16, 2009. Maria Norton, PhD, associate professor of gerontology, Utah State University, Logan. Ralph Nixon, MD, PhD, vice chairman, Medical & Scientific Advisory Council, Alzheimer's Association; professor of psychiatry and cell biology, New York University.

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