Caring for Elderly Spouse Raises Risk of Death
WebMD News Archive
Dec. 14, 1999 (Minneapolis) -- Caregivers who provide support to their
spouse and are under stress are more than twice as likely to die within four
years than spouses who are not serving as caregivers. Researchers say the
findings indicate that both spouses need treatment and support at the same
time. The study was published in the December issue of the Journal of
theAmerican Medical Association.
"It is widely known that caregiving can be stressful, but it has not
been demonstrated [until now] that caregiving may contribute to premature
death," the lead author of the study, Richard Schulz, PhD, tells WebMD.
Schulz is director of the University Center for Social and Urban Research at
the University of Pittsburgh.
In another article in the same journal, Janice K. Kiecolt-Glaser, PhD,
states that while caregiving can be stressful for any family member, spouses
have a unique disadvantage. "Marriage is the central relationship for the
majority of adults, and [sickness and death] are lower for the married than the
unmarried ... in part because of the support provided by this key relationship.
However, when the spouse is ill, the prime source of support can become a major
generator of stress, while simultaneously limiting the partner's ability to
seek support of other relationships."
Schulz and his fellow researchers studied 392 caregivers and 427
non-caregivers aged 66-96 years who were living with their spouses. After four
years of follow-up, they found that the caregivers who were experiencing stress
and strain were more than 50% more apt to die than caregivers whose spouse was
"Strained caregivers ... are much less likely to get enough rest in
general, have time to rest when they are sick, or have time to exercise,"
according to the researchers. All of these factors, and others not reviewed in
this study, are possible links between caregiving and death, they say.
Other studies have shown that elderly spouses who serve as caregivers
experience higher rates of influenza and pneumonia -- conditions that together
constitute the fourth leading cause of death among persons aged 75 years or
older. In addition, depressive symptoms are associated with the development of
heart disease, and with poorer outcomes for patients who already have heart
"Caregivers need to pay attention to their own health,"
Kiecolt-Glaser tells WebMD. "[Stress] has clear consequences for mortality,
and the older the person, the more it may affect their health."
Kiecolt-Glaser is with the department of psychiatry and the Institute for
Behavioral Medicine Research at Ohio State University College of Medicine in
"Patients who are not [mentally] impaired may be able to decrease the
stress experienced by their [spouse] by being an advocate for professional
services for themselves, being sensitive to the demands they place on their
spouse, and by monitoring the needs and health of their spouse," Schulz
"Politically, [this study] is likely to fuel the debate about the
financing of long-term care," Kiecolt-Glaser says, "particularly when
considering that caregiving will become an increasingly prominent problem as
the baby boom generation ages."
- Caregivers who provide support to their spouse and are under stress are
twice as likely to die within four years, compared to spouses who are not
- Providing care is particularly stressful for a spouse because a person's
prime source of support becomes a generator of stress, while limiting the
ability to draw support from other relationships.
- Caregivers are less likely to get enough rest, have time to rest when sick,
or exercise, but they should pay attention to their own health.