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It's Time for a Heart to Heart: Couples and Heart Failure

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Caring for a  sick spouse Auremar/PhotoSpin

A study that appears in Heart and Lung affirms in a broad sense what anyone in a committed relationship, particularly a marriage, already knows from experience: one spouse’s mental or physical health ailments can, and often do, tax the other spouse.

This study is particularly concerned with the implications of this dynamic when one spouse has some form of heart failure (HF), a chronic progressive condition that occurs when the heart muscle can’t pump enough blood through the heart to meet the body’s blood and oxygen demand.

Studies have already shown that HF patients who suffer from depression, anxiety or anger issues are likely to have more difficulty coping with HF symptoms and complying with treatment. However, little had been done until now to better understand how a patient’s distress affects a spouse’s health and vice versa.

The population for this relatively small study consisted of 60 patients with confirmed diagnoses of HF (43 men/17 women) and their opposite-sex spouses, all ranging in age from 36-83 with mean ages in the mid-60s. Clinicians visited couples’ homes, interviewing them separately and together and then concluding with a ten-minute video interview of the couple. A follow-up phone interview with each patient and spouse was conducted six months later.

The study found that a spouse’s distress had substantially greater impact on the HF patient’s overall health and the course of the patient’s illness than the reverse scenario. Considering the fact that 5.7 million Americans have HF and well over half a million new cases are diagnosed each year, this is concerning.

Spouses of HF patients should take heed and be proactive about their own mental and physical health issues so that they do not put the already ailing hearts of their partners in even greater jeopardy.

For more information on heart failure, including different types, warning signs, treatment options and personal accounts, the American Heart Association is one of many valuable resources on the Web.


Add a Comment5 Comments

EmpowHER Guest

Thanks for a great comment. I agree with you. And there have
been several studies like the ones you mention that highlight the toll caregiving takes on caregivers; as a matter of fact, there is one such article in the current issue of "Heart and Lung" where I found the article discussed in my post. While I cannot attest specifically to the difficulty of coping with personal health problems while also caring for a partner with HF, I did care for my sister during her final months in the hospital and at home with hospice, and I know the mental and physical toll it took on me, and my mother (who does have a history of heart issues). My family (myself included) routinely urged my mother to take care of herself so she could be strong for my sister and healthy for my sister's children once my sister was gone. While there is logic in this, and while it was well-meant, it undermines the importance of my mother's health and livelihood in its own right. And I know at times she felt the pressure and guilt you mention.
Thanks again for reading and sharing.

July 13, 2009 - 10:26am
EmpowHER Guest

"Spouses of HF patients should take heed and be proactive about their own mental and physical health issues so that they do not put the already ailing hearts of their partners in even greater jeopardy. "

While in principle, this statement seems to be common sense, it can actually cause a great deal of guilt and further stress for spousal caregivers of HF patients, if they only focus on the second part, about putting the ailing hearts of their partners in greater jeopardy.

As President of the Well Spouse Association http://wellspouse.org, I feel there needs to be more emphasis on, and resources devoted to maintaining the health of spousal caregivers -- who all too often do not recognize their need for regular respite breaks and stress-relieving activities apart from their caregiving activity. A Feb. 2006 study by Christakis et al. in the New England Journal of Medicine, of spousal couples over age 65 has shown that after the death of a chronically ill or disabled spouse the mortality of the spousal caregiver greatly increases, to as much as more than 20% in the case of mental illness for the ill spouse -- compared to the mortality rate of couples in their age grouping where neither has a longterm disease or condition.

July 12, 2009 - 6:44pm

I would be interested to know if there was a difference between men and women. That is, were female partners more affected or male partners.

Its another reason to look after yourself first before you can truly help others. Easier said than done. :)

July 10, 2009 - 1:41pm
EmpowHER Guest
Anonymous (reply to Kellie - My Health Software)

This particular study does not provide insight into the gender differential, but there were twice as many male patients as female ones, so this sample suggests men with HF are significantly affected by their spouses' conditions. More research is needed clearly. Thanks for reading and commenting.

July 13, 2009 - 10:07am
(reply to Anonymous)

The previous reply is mine...I had difficulty logging in...

July 13, 2009 - 2:41pm
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.


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