Taking care of a spouse with dementia is often difficult and even heartbreaking. A recent study, published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that being the caregiver for a spouse with dementia is also a risk factor for developing dementia.
Dementia is not a specific disease. It is a diagnosis that describes a collection of symptoms, but can have many causes. The most well known cause of dementia is probably Alzheimer’s disease. Dementias cause problems with reasoning ability, memory, and control of emotions. Sometimes patients become agitated or hallucinate.
Dementia in a partner is a severe stressor. Spouses often become responsible for around-the-clock care, disrupting sleep patterns, and requiring the well spouse to take control of all responsibilities that were previously shared. Social activities may be sacrificed, limiting emotional support for the caregiver.
Because a person with dementia can be physically healthy, this situation can continue for many years. It is not uncommon for the well spouse to end up physically and emotionally exhausted. Caregivers are at high risk for depression and illness.
The study included 1,221 married couples over age 65 in Utah. At the beginning of the study, none of the couples had dementia. They were then followed for 12 years to see if either of the partners developed dementia. Researchers adjusted for socioeconomic status, as that can be a factor in developing dementia due to shared environmental risks.
Of the 1,221 couples, 125 cases of dementia were diagnosed in husbands only, 70 in just the wife, and 30 in both spouses (meaning 60 people). Men were at a higher risk of developing dementia after their partners than women were. Spouses were six times more likely to develop dementia if their partner had already been diagnosed.
It remains uncertain what causes the higher risk. Researchers are considering whether it is related to the stress of caregiving, the shared environment that the couples lived in, or other factors.
As the United States population ages, dementias including Alzheimer’s are on the rise.