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updated 5/13/2011 1:19:33 PM ET 2011-05-13T17:19:33

An older person who cares for a spouse with dementia is also at an increased risk of developing problems with attention and memory, according to a new review of studies.

That's because the spousal caregiver likely shared lifestyle risk factors with the person with dementia, and undergoes ongoing stress from caring for the person, the review said.

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Researchers from the University of Washington School of Medicine reviewed more than 100 studies that examined the cognitive health of older adults who cared for a family member with dementia, with the majority of the subjects being spouses. They found that these caregivers have more trouble with attention and memory, also known as cognition, than people who don't have to care for a family member with dementia.

The review of the studies showed that those caregivers had a higher risk of cognitive decline or dementia than people who do not have to care for someone with dementia. Researchers noted that this could be due to a number of factors, including depression, loneliness, sleep problems, social isolation, exercise, diet and even factors such as obesity.

"Persons who are caring for a spouse with dementia may themselves be at risk for cognitive problems which, in turn, will not only negatively influence their quality of life, but may reduce their ability to provide the necessary care for their spouse," study researcher Dr. Peter Vitaliano of the University of Washington School of Medicine, said in a statement.

"Spouse caregivers are extremely important because most care-recipients prefer to be cared for in their homes, and, by remaining in their homes, health care costs are reduced greatly," he said.

The review demonstrates that the mental health of caregivers is also at stake. Because of that, health professionals should make sure to promote healthy eating and exercise and provide resources for community support to increase awareness of the hidden risks that come with caregiving, researchers said.

The study was published today (May 13) in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

Pass it on: People with dementia are not the only ones who have health problems – a spouse who cares for them are also at risk for attention and memory problems.

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