Spousal caregivers of cancer patients have increased risks of coronary heart disease and stroke that persist over time, researchers have discovered.

For the study, a team led by Jianguang Ji, MD, of the Centre for Primary Healthcare Research in Malmö, Sweden, used the Swedish Multi-Generation Register to obtain information on the spouses of cancer patients who had been identified through the Swedish Cancer Registry. The caregivers were followed from the date of the spouse’s first cancer diagnosis through 2008.

Compared with persons whose spouses did not have cancer, spouses of cancer patients were up to nearly 30% more likely to develop coronary heart disease or suffer a stroke. After a cancer diagnosis in wives, the risks of coronary heart disease, ischemic stroke, and hemorrhagic stroke in husbands were 13% higher, 24% higher, and 25% higher, respectively, than in persons with unaffected spouses. The corresponding risks in wives with an affected husband were 13%, 29%, and 27%. The increases were consistent over time and were more pronounced if the spouse was affected by a cancer with a high mortality rate, such as pancreatic and lung cancers.

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Because cardiovascular disease risk was only marginally increased (3% to 5%) in the spouses in the time before the partner became ill with cancer, Ji and colleagues contend that most of the increased risk is probably explained by the negative stress to which the spouse of the cancer patient is exposed. The investigators recommend that clinical attention be paid to spousal caregivers of persons with cancer, particularly those spouses caring for patients with a particularly deadly form of the disease (Circulation. 2012;125:1742-1747).