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A spouse with dementia increases your own risk

BMJ Group News

smiling elderly couple

Having a husband or wife with dementia is linked to an increased risk of getting the disease yourself, a new study shows. The researchers can’t say why this might be, although it may be due to the stress of caring for a partner with dementia.

What do we know already?

Living with or caring for a spouse with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia can put a great deal of strain on an elderly person. Studies have shown that people caring for a husband or wife with dementia tend to do less well on memory or concentration tests. But it’s unclear whether this is a temporary phenomenon, due to stress and tiredness, or whether people could be affected in the long term, even to the point of being at risk of dementia.

A new study followed 1,221 older people who had a spouse suffering from dementia. People regularly took memory and reasoning tests, to see whether having a spouse with dementia raised the risk for the carer. Anyone whose tests suggested they might have dementia was assessed by a specialist to confirm the diagnosis.

What does the new study say?

Having a husband or wife with dementia was linked to an increase in dementia risk. Using the raw data, almost 15 in 100 people whose spouse had dementia developed it themselves, compared with 10 in 100 people whose partner didn’t have dementia.

After taking into account factors such as age and genetic susceptibility, this translated to a six-fold increase in risk for people whose spouse had dementia. The link was stronger for men.

The study doesn’t explain why people might have a higher risk of dementia after caring for a spouse with the disease. The researchers make two main suggestions:

  • The distress, grief, and difficulty of caring for a spouse with dementia may directly increase the risk of getting dementia
  • A couple who have been married for many years are likely to have shared the same lifestyle and environment. For example, they will have eaten a similar diet, been exposed to each other’s smoke, and had similar access to health care. So, they are likely to have shared many of the same risks for dementia. However, the researchers say their study takes account of some of these things, and they are unlikely to be responsible for all the increased risk.

 

How reliable are the findings?

The study followed a large group of people for many years. Few people dropped out of the study or refused to take part, so the results should be quite reliable. However, the study only proves there’s a link between having a spouse with dementia and getting dementia yourself. It can’t tell us why this happens. We need further studies to find out which factors are important, and what can be done to help spouses of people with dementia to avoid getting it themselves.

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