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.”