Itís kind of sweet and kind of scary: Older people's health is far more dependent on their spouseís health than weíve realized.
A study in Health Psychology finds that the mental and physical health of older couples is tied together -- for better or for worse.
If one is depressed, the other is more likely to be. And if one is in poor physical health, the otherís physical and mental health are likely to be compromised, too, according to the analysis of a survey of 1,700 older Americans, many of whom had been married for more than 40 years.
The opposite is true as well, with one personís good mood boosting the otherís health, the survey suggests.
We donít know if this is good news or bad, said Christiane Hoppmann, assistant professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, who led the research.
"Itís either an amazing resource to help a spouse stay in good spirits,"she said. "Or it could be a problem where when something happens to one spouse it could have deleterious effects on the other."
Itís long been clear that when one spouse has Alzheimerís, say, it puts a huge stress on the other, often shortening lifespan. In this study, researchers for the first time looked across-the-board at older people of all health status, and at both mental and physical health.
The obvious next question, Hoppmann said, is how to use this information to help smooth the aging process.
Medical care for people in their 70s, 80s and 90s currently addresses only the individual. But Hoppmann said her research suggests we should be looking at couples as a health unit, with both spouses seeing the same doctor, for instance, and caregivers considering the impact of a health crisis on both spouses.
She also cautions that the data set she used in her study -- a preexisting survey that followed couples for 15 years -- looked at the oldest of the old, many of whom had been married for decades and decades. That generation survived the Depression and World War II and may have a different relationship with each other than the aging baby boomers, who married later and are more likely to have been divorced, she said.
Dr. Suzanne E. Salamon said the study resonates with the patients she sees every day as associate chief of clinical geriatrics at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.
ďI have a couple who, the woman has the most debilitating physical disease that would depress anybody, but her husband is the most amazing upbeat guy,Ē Salamon said. Clearly, heís helping boost her spirits.
Unfortunately, more common is one spouse who is ďreally cranky, and it does pull the other down,Ē Salamon said. The healthier spouse is stuck at home isolated from friends and activities that we know can promote healthy aging.
ďI think people underestimate what a burden it is to care for someone with a chronic illness,Ē she said. The strain may be particularly burdensome for women taking physical care of husbands who are generally larger and heavier than they are, she said.
Salamon said the new study suggests to her that staying at home isnít always the best option for aging older adults -- because it can be very isolating.
Assisted living facilities that provide social outlets may be happier places for couples to grow old, she said. Some provide a continuum of care, so a healthier spouse can remain active, while the sicker one slows down.
Do your homework before picking a facility though, Salamon warned, because quality varies widely, and most are extremely expensive. On the other hand, itís worth the price to stay healthy and happy through the last decades of life.
ďIf youíre going to save for a rainy day, I think thatís the rainy day to save for,Ē she said. Is your spouseís health affecting yours?
Are you watching your aging parents pull the other one down -- or up? Any tips for people in similar situations?
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