I have been immersed in everything brain for a number of years. Dementia is part of that immersion. There are many family members and friends who have asked for some advice one time or another. But there has always been a question that has surprised and puzzled me. Is dementia contagious? This is always spoken out of fear and it is usually an adult son or daughter of a caregiver taking care of their spouse. Being a caregiver is a very difficult job for anyone but it really takes a toll on a spouse.
The etiology (cause of the disease) of Alzheimer’s and most other dementias doesn’t reveal that there is a possible transmission route for the disease to be spread. But frightened sons and daughters see a caregiver parent starting to slide cognitively and they would swear they caught it from their other parent with dementia.
So let’s take a look at what might be happening. John Hopkins and Utah State University have been researching the likelihood where a person is more apt to develop dementia if his/her spouse has dementia. John Hopkins reported on
Cache County Study on Memory and Aging (John Hopkins) 1221 married couples age 65+ were selected to participate in this study. The trial began in 1995 and the couples were followed for up to 12.6 years; medium follow-up time was 3.3 years. Dementia was diagnosed in 255 of the 2442 participants.
Individuals whose spouses were diagnosed with dementia had a six-fold greater risk of developing this disease. Husbands had a significantly higher risk of developing dementia than wives.
These researchers looked at the huge amount of stress the caregivers were under in caring for a loved one with dementia. Lifestyle similarities like diet and people marrying people similar to themselves provide some clues for the risk of developing dementia. McGill University in Montreal looked at the incidence of untreated depression in caregiving spouses. Caregiving for dementia family members is longer lasting than other diseases. Depression over the slow decline and demands of the disease put spousal caregivers at high risk of developing disease.
Lifestyle factors account for 70% risk of developing dementia. The extended burden of caring for a spouse results in chronic stress with all of its trappings and depression. There are healthy lifestyle practices that can protect the brain and build up brain resilience. These include physical exercise, mental stimulation, nutrition, socialization, sleep, and stress reduction. It is easy to see how spousal caregivers are at such high risk for developing dementia. Stress, diet, isolation, lack of sleep and physical exercise takes a heavy toll on the brain.
So – dementia is not contagious but the circumstances of caregiving put the brain at very high risk of developing the disease. Family caregivers need a plan to ensure that the primary caregiver is relieved from some caregiving duties in order to take care of him or herself. Being proactive on brain health is so much easier than sliding into the depths of dementia.
Dementia Symptoms (September 22, 2015). Is dementia contagious? Retrieved
September 23,2015 from http://dementia-symptoms.blogspot.com/2010/12/is-dementia-contagious.html
Rosenblatt,C. (March 21, 2011). Can dementia be contagious? Retrieved September 23, 2015 from http://www.forbes.com/sites/carolynrosenblatt/2011/03/21/can-dementia-be-contagious/print/