Dementia Risk Higher if Spouse Has It

You may always have believed that dementia was an internal process, triggered by unknown changes in the brain and perhaps genetically determined. But external factors can contribute as well. For instance, did you know that people who care for spouses with dementia are at significantly higher risk of developing dementia themselves?

This recent discovery by a team of scientists at Utah State University in Logan has the medical community taking a closer look at the toll caring for someone with dementia takes on a person. It appears that toll can be great. The team looked at data from a local study of 1,221 married couples who were at least 65 years old. The study followed the couples for up to 12 years. The findings? During the study, the spouses of people who developed dementia had a six-fold greater risk of developing dementia themselves. And husbands were more at risk of developing dementia if their wives had it than wives were if their husbands had it.

The researchers believe that people who care for a spouse with dementia day in and day out experience severe stress that may somehow trigger dementia in themselves. One explanation is that ongoing stress might damage the hippocampus, the part of the brain that controls memory. Or that stress somehow lowers cognitive function in caregivers, a finding of several other studies.

Regardless of how or why caring for a spouse with dementia may cause the disease to appear in the caregiver, it's imperative that caregivers take care of themselves for both their physical and mental health. If you're caring for a spouse with dementia, you can:

  • See your doctor. Don't neglect your own well-being while caring for your spouse. If you aren't sleeping or eating well or have other physical complaints, get care.


  • Accept help. Don't feel that you have to do this all by yourself. If you have family or friends nearby who can relieve you for an hour or two each day, it can make a tremendous difference in your outlook. Find out what assistance is available in your community, such as visiting nurses or Meals on Wheels.
    • Talk about it. Keeping your feelings bottled up will only lead to more stress. Find a trusted friend or therapist and let it out when you need to.
    • Stay educated. Your spouse's caregiving needs may change as the dementia progresses. If you're prepared for physical and behavioral changes, you may be better able to deal with them.


    Sources: Norton MC, Smith KR, Ostbye T, Tschanz JT, Corcoran C, Schwartz S, et al. (2010). Greater Risk of Dementia When Spouse Has Dementia? The Cache County Study. Journal of the American Geriatric Society, 58(5), 895-900; Alzheimer's Association,