A recent study indicated that older adults’ cognitive disorders increase the risk of cognitive impairment in their spouses.

Older adults with dementia or mild cognitive impairment are more likely to have a spouse with a cognitive disorder than older adults who are cognitively normal, according to Ki Woong Kim, MD, PhD, a professor of psychiatry at Seoul National University Bundang Hospital in Korea. Common living areas may be responsible for couples’ cognitive performance, study authors said.

“This study demonstrated that participants’ cognitive disorders were associated with spouses’ declines in cognitive function and risks of cognitive disorders, and that this association was mediated by factors including physical inactivity and a history of head injury, which were shared within couples” the researchers explained in JAMA Network Open. “To our knowledge, this is the first study to reveal how the association among cognitive disorders, cognitive function, and shared risk factors is structured within couples,” they noted.

From 2010 to 2020 the study followed 784 older adults and their opposite-sex spouses who participated in the Korean Longitudinal Study on Cognitive Aging and Dementia, 307 of whom were women and 477 who were men. Geriatric psychiatrists conducted in-person diagnostic interviews to evaluate cognitive status. Participants’ mean age was 75, while spouses’ mean age was 74.

Among participants, 121 had cognitive disorders. Spouses of those people were older, less physically active, had more limited education, and were more likely to have a history of head injury compared with spouses of those who had no cognitive disorder. Cognitive disorders were more prevalent among participants whose spouses had cognitive disorders than others.

The study indicated that “almost 50% of the higher rates of cognitive disorders in spouses of persons with cognitive disorders could be explained by their age, history of major depressive disorder, limited physical activity, and history of head injury” said Peter Vitaliano, MS, PhD, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle.

“These findings support previous research and recommend the further study of three areas that are relevant to neurology and psychiatry: assortative mating, dyadic lifestyles, and spouse caregiving,” he suggested. Caregiving for a cognitively impaired spouse can create chronic stress, which may lead to physiological dysregulation, Vitaliano suggested. Cross-sectional studies have shown that chronic stress may affect the cognitive performance of spouse caregivers, he noted.

Caregivers need to recognize the importance of self-care and periods of respite to refresh and recharge. Caregiving can be draining, both physically and emotionally. In order to provide optimal care, it’s imperative to continue to care for yourself.