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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

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Experts stress, however, that many of the lifestyle factors that have been shown to lead to cognitive decline can be changed and that doing so may help to reduce the risks of dementia and other ailments linked to caregiving, like heart disease and depression.

"We don't know anything about causality at this point," says Vitaliano. For example, he says, researchers can't say whether depression pushes caregivers into cognitive decline or whether dementia that's already there, but perhaps not as advanced as in a diagnosed spouse, may be contributing to depression.

"Like in a lot of epidemiology, these are associations and we need to understand them because they have great implications."

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.

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