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Alzheimer's Caregivers May Be at Risk for Dementia

Stress and Shared Lifestyle May Raise Risk of Mental Decline for Spouses Who Are Also Caregivers

Shared Habits of Married Couples

Married couples may have shared years of eating, drinking, and exercise habits, Vitaliano says, all factors that are thought to play a role in the development of dementia.

Their relationship style, whether it was contentious or peaceful, may also play a role in overall stress and later brain function, as could a couple's social habits, whether they were TV-watching couch potatoes or enjoyed hobbies that kept them intellectually stimulated, like a regular bridge night.

After one spouse is diagnosed, the other often finds that the life they once knew disappears.

"What happens is people stop coming over, your friends, once the diagnosis occurs," Vitaliano says.

And wives or husbands that care for a spouse with depression soon find themselves in the midst of a full-time job.

Caregivers of dementia patients provide an average of 35 hours of direct care per week, one study in the review found.

That care is often boring and stressful, contributing to the risk for depression and loneliness, the review finds.

Depression and chronic stress have been strongly associated with the risk for dementia, Vitaliano says.

Studies have also shown that caregivers often find it difficult to maintain a healthy diet, and it's not uncommon for them to switch to diet of fast and highly processed foods for the sake of convenience.

Caregivers have also been shown to be less physically active than adults the same age who are not taking care of a sick loved one.

Poor diets and lack of physical activity have both been tied to an increased risk of Alzheimer's disease and dementia, the review notes.

Taking Care of Caregivers

With such a complex interplay of physical and emotional factors at work, experts say that the interventions to protect caregivers from dementia need to be just as multifaceted.

"It's too simplistic to think that by telling someone to take care of themselves, they're going to do that," Eskenasi says. "In part because there are too many barriers involved."

The first problem, she says, is that many caregivers don't recognize themselves in that role.

"If your spouse has dementia, you don't say 'I'm a caregiver.' You say, 'I'm a wife,' or 'I'm a partner," she says.

But it's important for people to understand the unique demands of what they're doing so they can take time to protect themselves.

Vitaliano says one thing that has been shown to have significant impact on cognitive decline is exercise. Studies have found that moderate intensity aerobic exercise performed in midlife or later appears to reduce the risk of cognitive decline. For those who are already showing signs of dementia, one study found that a six-month program of high-intensity aerobic activity improved cognitive function.

"It's pretty demanding, in terms of the amount of physical activity that you have to do," he says, but it seems to help.

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