Spouses of stroke survivors may themselves face lasting mental and physical health issues, according to a new study. 

These caregiver spouses are at an increased risk of mental and physical health issues even seven years after their care recipient’s stroke, said lead author Josefine Persson, a Ph.D. candidate at Sahlgrenska Academy, University of Gothenburg, Sweden.

“The spouses of stroke survivors reported lower general health than the spouses of (a comparison group), which might be due to perceived stress or strain for a long period, or due to shared lifestyle factors,” Persson told Reuters Health by email.

Society, she said, should "provide support to reduce the burden on spouses and health promotion to prevent unhealthy lifestyles.”

Her team followed 248 stroke survivors under age 70 and their spouses for seven years and compared them to 245 similar couples without a stroke. The spouses' average age was roughly 65 years; about two-thirds were women.

At the end of the study, compared to spouses in the non-stroke group, the stroke survivors' spouses scored lower on all general health and mental health domains of a 36-item health related quality of life questionnaire. They also scored lower for their physical role in the home.

As the stroke survivors’ levels of disability, cognitive ability, and depressive symptoms increased, the caregiving spouses’ quality of life scores tended to decrease, the authors reported in the journal Stroke.

Supporting a partner is often perceived as natural and important but can be demanding and have an impact on the spouse’s own health, Persson said.

The chronic stress of providing informal care to a loved one can be associated with increases in stress hormones and inflammation, which may raise the risk of depression and inflammatory diseases like cardiovascular disease, according to Karen L. Saban of Loyola University Chicago in Illinois, who was not part of the new study.

Some people may be more vulnerable to the chronic stress of caregiving, she told Reuters Health by email.

“For example, caregivers with good social support may be at lower risk of experiencing the effects of chronic stress,” Saban said.

“The resources available for caregivers of stroke survivors vary in different countries depending on welfare and health care systems,” Persson said.

Since society greatly depends on informal caregivers, “it is imperative that we ‘care for the caregiver,’” potentially with routine screening for depressive symptoms and symptoms associated with chronic stress, Saban said. Those at high risk can then be referred to support groups or respite care programs to help reduce their stress, she said.

“Receiving knowledge about stroke and about how to handle the consequences of the stroke in everyday life is important as a base for caregivers’ coping ability,” Persson said. “It´s also important that society and health care are knowledgeable about caregivers’ situation and risk of decreased well-being even after an apparently mild stroke.”