Alzheimer’s effect on spouse’s health focus of new Rice study

Alzheimer’s is a devastating disease that affects about 5.8 million people in the United States, but how does it impact the health of their spouses? A new five-year, $3.8 million study at Rice University will try to find out.

Chris Fagundes. Photo by Jeff Fitlow.

Chris Fagundes. Photo by Jeff Fitlow.

Christopher Fagundes, an associate professor of psychological sciences at Rice, will focus on the notion of “living bereavement” — grieving the loss of a spouse with Alzheimer’s who is still alive. Fagundes and his fellow researchers are also interested in seeing how the health of spouses impacts patients.

In addition to discovering which spousal caregivers are at greatest risk for compromised health, the study will also seek to determine  how stress and immune dysregulation affect quality of life for both Alzheimer’s patients and their spouses.

The study is funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health.

“In ourprevious work, we demonstrated that spousally bereaved older adults have elevated inflammation (a marker of immune dysregulation) and lower cardiac variability (a marker of autonomic dysregulation, heart disease risk, and premature mortality) …,” Fagundes notes. “Using the knowledge we obtained from our work on widow(er)s, we now seek to understand if these same processes occur among dementia spousal caregivers.

“Dementia spousal caregivers have compromised immunity,” he added. “Our goal is to uncover the characteristics that make some AD (Alzheimer’s disease) spousal caregivers at more mental and physical health risk than others in order to make informed decisions when designing tailored interventions.”

Fagundes and his team will recruit 320 people — 160 patients and their spouses — and follow them for two years, conducting psychological assessments four times in addition to blood draws, electrocardiograms, neuropsychological assessments and other tests. Alzheimer’s patients selected for the study must have symptoms in the mild to moderate range.

Fagundes hopes the study will “help us gain the knowledge needed to develop psychosocial and/or pharmacological interventions to improve the health of dementia spousal caregivers. In turn, these improvements may have the added benefit of improving the quality of care they are providing to the AD patient. The population of AD spousal caregivers is growing exponentially, and it is essential we do everything we can to help them cope.”

For more information on Rice’s Department of Psychological Sciences, visit

About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.