Caring for Elderly Spouse Raises Risk of Death

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 not disabled.

"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 disease.

"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 Columbus.

"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 says.

"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."

Vital Information:

  • 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 caregivers.
  • 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.