Spouses Caring For Alzheimer's Patients More Likely to Develop Dementia Also
Caregivers for Alzheimer’s patients are under a great deal of stress. New research suggests that this stress may contribute to the increased likelihood of a husband or wife caring for a spouse with dementia developing the condition themselves.
Researchers from Johns Hopkins, Utah State University, and Duke University collaborated on the 12-year study that examined 1221 married couples aged 65 and older who were part of the Cache County (Utah) Memory Study. Cache County residents were at the top of the longevity scale in the 1990 United States Census. All were dementia-free at the start of the study.
Starting in 1995, the researchers began screening volunteers for dementia. Each participant completed a questionnaire to evaluate their cognitive status and those who triggered at a higher risk underwent a comprehensive clinical assessment. A geriatric psychiatrist and a neuropsychologist evaluated the findings and determined if a clinical diagnosis of dementia was appropriate.
The study found that those whose spouses had already been diagnosed with dementia were six times as likely to develop the condition themselves compared to those without an affected spouse. Men were at a higher risk than women, and older age was also significantly associated with dementia risk.
Study leader Dr. Maria Norton, of Utah State University, speculate that the stress of caregiving may be responsible for the increased dementia risk, although more research is needed. Cortisol, a hormone released during stress, increases insulin levels in the body, and some evidence has shown that excess circulating insulin in the brain causes lesions similar to those that cause Alzheimer’s disease.
Dr. Peter Vitaliano, PhD and professor of psychiatry at the University of Washington who was not involved with the study, agrees with that assessment. He told WebMD that his own studies of the physical and psychological impact of caring for chronically ill patients revealed that spouse caregivers are more likely to be depressed, socially isolated, and neglect their own health.
"It amazes me that caregivers often think that denying their own needs makes them better caregivers,” Vitaliano says. "In reality, the complete opposite is true." He suggests that caregivers actively manage their stress with exercise, social support, and medications (such as antidepressants) if needed.
"On the positive side,’ said Dr. Norton in a news release, “The majority of individuals with spouses who develop dementia did not themselves develop dementia; therefore more research is needed to explore which factors distinguish those who are more vulnerable."