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Dementia patients' spouses at higher risk
Husbands or wives who care for spouses with dementia are six times more likely to develop the memory-impairing condition than those whose spouses don't have it, according to the results of a 12-year study led by Johns Hopkins, Utah State University, and Duke University.1
A few small studies have suggested that spousal caregivers frequently show memory deficits greater than spouses who aren't caregivers.
However, none examined the cognitive ability of caregivers over time using standard, strict criteria to diagnose dementia, a serious cognitive disorder characterized by deficits in memory, attention, judgment, language, and other abilities.
A study examined 1,221 married couples age 65 and older who were part of the Cache County (Utah) Memory Study, which began in 1995.
In the sample of 2,442 married people, the researchers diagnosed 255 individuals with dementia and discovered that individuals whose spouses had already been diagnosed were six times as likely to develop the condition themselves compared to those without an affected spouse.
Co-author Maria C. Norton, PhD, of Utah State University in Logan, says the long-term nature of the new research makes the results different from earlier "snapshot" studies showing memory loss in spousal caregivers. "We know that the declines in memory we saw were real and persistent, not just a point in time where they weren't performing well on tests," she says.
Researchers speculate that the stress of caregiving might be responsible for the increased dementia risk for spouses, although more research is needed to identify what that mechanism might be.
The researchers suggest that doctors who treat dementia patients should pay more attention to efforts to decrease stress for spousal caregivers.
1. Norton MC, Smith KR, Ostbye T, et al. Greater Risk of Dementia When Spouse Has Dementia? The Cache County Study. J Am Geriatr Soc 2010; 58: 895-900.