Campus & Community

Women caring for ill spouses may be at increased risk of heart disease:

3 min read

Burden and stress of caregiving may double risk

Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) have found that women who care for sick or disabled spouses for nine or more hours a week may have an increased risk of coronary heart disease (CHD). The findings are published in the February issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

“To our knowledge, this is the first study to suggest that there is a significant association between caregiving and risk of CHD,” said Sunmin Lee, a research fellow in medicine at the Harvard Medical School. “We observed that women who spent a considerable amount of time looking after their ill spouses may face serious long-term health consequences.”

More than 25 million adults provide care to family members. Women are twice as likely as men to assume family caregiving responsibilities. It is estimated that more than half of American women will care for a sick or disabled family member at some point during their adult lives. Previous studies have suggested that caregiving is associated with high blood pressure and other risk factors for heart disease. However, Lee wanted to determine whether a link exists between caregiving and heart disease itself.

Caregiving for a disabled or ill spouse nine or more hours a week increased a woman’s risk of CHD twofold compared with women with no caregiving responsibilities. The researchers hypothesize that it is mainly the stress of providing care that may influence the risk.

“It is likely that caregivers alter their normal patterns of eating, exercising, and socializing in response to the stress and time commitment associated with their role,” explained Lee. “In addition to the stress and pain of observing a loved one suffer, these women also likely face financial burdens. For example, worries over not only paying medical expenses but also possibly adjusting to a potential loss in household income. These kinds of stresses raise blood pressure and cause wear and tear of the cardiovascular system, which eventually leads to CHD events.”

This study was based on the analysis of questionnaires from 54,412 women participating in the BWH-based Nurses’ Health Study who did not have previously diagnosed CHD. The research team, also led by Ichiro Kawachi of Harvard School of Public Health, examined four years of health and activity data, including the total number of hours spent caring for spouses and other family members. During the period of the study, researchers documented 321 cases of CHD. The data revealed no evidence of increased CHD risk among women providing care to a disabled or ill parent compared with women with no caregiving responsibilities.

“This difference in CHD risk probably reflects the intensity of commitment involved in caring for a spouse compared to caring for other relatives,” said Lee. “While caregiving for a disabled or ill spouse is often inescapable, caregiving for another family member tends to be more voluntary and shared between siblings and others.”