Caring for a Spouse Increases Stroke Risk

By Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
April 08, 2016

Black men are most vulnerable. 

Although taking care of a spouse may be the roughest kind of caregiving, many say that it isn’t stressful for them. In fact, some couples grow closer. Maybe you didn’t see each other much during the week for years and now you do. Maybe your husband resisted help all his life and now you’re delighted that he accepts tender, daily care. Caregivers can feel a strong sense of purpose and relish expressing their love in practical ways, every day. 

On the other hand, caregivers can find themselves under a big strain — for a wide range of reasons — and then they’re in danger of becoming ill themselves. If you’re elderly, caregiving may shorten your life, some research suggests.  


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Chronic stress boosts levels of the hormone cortisol in your blood, which can increase inflammation in your body, cause your arteries to harden and narrow, and eventually restrict blood flow to your brain, leading to a stroke.

One study has found that in a large group of people taking care of spouses, the chances of stroke jumped by about a quarter if they felt stressed. 

The research focused on people who were living with their sick spouse and hadn’t previously had a stroke, identifying 716 people from a telephone survey that tilted towards a “stroke belt” in the U.S. South, with the other half of the sample spread among the rest of the country. 

Husbands were less likely than wives to find caregiving stressful, probably because they are more likely to use paid services and get help from other relatives. 

But some men have a very hard time, black men especially so. This group had nearly a 27 percent chance of having a stroke in the next decade, compared to an 11 percent chance among caregivers of any race or gender who said it wasn’t stressful. Being male, older, showing signs of depression, less educated, and black were all linked to greater risk of both stroke and heart disease

Men still provide less care than women do, but the difference isn’t as great as you might guess. Among Americans age 45 and older, in the same South-tilted telephone survey, 13.5 percent of the women and close to 10 percent of the men were regularly helping a disabled or sick family member, another analysis found. 

The data on depression is also not what you might think. It’s easy to get the impression reading scare stories that every caregiver is depressed. More than 15 percent of the caregivers showed signs of being at risk of depression based on their answers in the survey — which means that almost 85 percent didn’t. Among people who weren’t caregivers, 12 percent scored similarly on the depression questions. 

The chances of a happy adjustment to caregiving are much better if you aren’t burdened. Consider it part of the job to seek out a schedule that includes rest and help, special breaks once in a while, and time for socializing and other interests.


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April 08, 2016

Reviewed By:

Janet O’Dell, RN

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