Older married couples are linked in sickness

"When we think about quality of life for older adults, and improving quality of life, it seems like targeting the individual is only part of the story," says David Sbarra. (Credit: Just Call Me Mo/Flickr)

A study of more than 8,000 married couples shows that the health of one partner can have a significant effect on the other as they get older.

“When we think about quality of life for older adults, and improving quality of life, it seems like targeting the individual is only part of the story, and our findings suggests that for older adults, a larger part of individual well-being is defined by our partner’s health and cognitive functioning as well,” says David Sbarra, associate professor of psychology at the University of Arizona.

The population of Americans age 65 years or older is expected to double during the next 25 years to about 72 million, as baby boomers age and people live longer. By 2030, older adults will account for roughly 20 percent of the US population and health-care spending will increase by 25 percent, largely because of the aging population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“As we build public health interventions for our aging population when it comes to quality of life, we need to take a more dyadic approach, looking at both partners,” Sbarra says.

Published in the journal Psychology and Aging, the study was based on analysis of data from the Survey of Health, Aging and Retirement in Europe, or SHARE study, of adults age 50 and older. The data was collected at three intervals over a six-year period, between 2004-2005 and 2010-2011.

Researchers considered survey respondents’ self-reports of physical health and quality of life, as well as their scores on cognition tests measuring verbal fluency, word recall, and delayed word recall. The study looked at health and cognition across a normal spectrum, rather than focusing on clinical cognitive disorders or chronic illnesses.

Quality of life

The findings support existing research on the interdependence of older married couples, and they extend that research by identifying cognition and physical health as two specifically important factors that influence spouses’ quality of life.

Husbands’ and wives’ quality of life appears to be equally affected by their spouse’s physical health, with no differences across gender lines, says Kyle Bourassa, a doctoral student in clinical psychology and the paper’s lead author. In other words, a wife’s physical health affects her husband’s quality of life as much as a husband’s physical health affects his wife’s quality of life.


“If you have people whose physical health is low—maybe they’re suffering from an illness or unable to walk—those kind of physical health issues not only impact the individual but the person they’re married to as well,” Bourassa says. “Their husband or wife is the one who may have to adjust and help with their partner’s new lifestyle.”

With regard to cognition, wives’ cognitive functioning appears to have as much of an effect on husbands’ quality of life as husbands’ own cognitive abilities. Wives’ quality of life was not as strongly affected by their husbands’ cognition, but there was a measurable impact, Bourassa says.

Finally, changes in participants’ self-reported overall quality of life at the three intervals in the survey varied similarly between husbands and wives, suggesting that change in one spouse’s life quality over time parallels change in the other’s.

“The population of aging adults is going up drastically, and as we have more and more people who are living longer and longer it’s really important to understand successful aging. You could extend these findings to think about interventions targeting cognition and physical health to improve quality of life not only for the individual, but also for their partner.”

Source: University of Arizona