New Study Examines Reciprocal Effects of Health Among Older Spouses

It is said that couples who have been married for some time begin to develop similar mannerisms and habits. Even the facial and physical features of one partner can tend to mimic those of the other after years together. These factors rarely influence the mental health of either partner. But other factors do. Physical functionality and impairment can decrease one’s quality of life and lead to negative well-being. The spouse of an impaired partner may develop his or her own problems as a result of having to pick up extra tasks and chores that the partner is no longer able to complete. In addition, the stress and worry that come from living with and caring for a loved one with health issues can also significantly impact a partner’s psychological health.

Understanding the nature of these influences and how they work independently for husbands and wives could help clinicians address the needs of couples more effectively. To get a better picture of the nature of this relationship between physical and mental health among spouses, Joelle Ruthig of the Department of Psychology at the University of North Dakota recently led a study that examined the physical health and psychological state of 71 married couples in their 70s. She assessed their conditions over a 2-year period to determine the long-term impact of mental or physical impairments.

Ruthig discovered that men were more strongly affected by the physical health of their spouse than the wives were. Specifically, the husbands with the highest levels of control had wives with good functionality. However, the better the wives’ physical ability, the more depressed the husbands were. This could be due to the fact that the husbands were not able to complete all the tasks their wives could, creating a feeling of incompetence. The mental health of wives also predicted the mental health of their husbands at both year one and year two. But surprisingly, the mental health of husbands had little to no impact on the mental well-being of the wives. And physical impairment did not negatively affect the mental health of the wives at all. Ruthig believes that these findings provide insight that could help clinicians working with older couples. She added, “Gerontologists, health practitioners, and older married adults need to recognize spousal health and psychological well-being as important contributors to well-being in later life.”

Ruthig, J. C., Trisko, J., Stewart, T L. (2012). The impact of spouse’s health and well-being on own well-being: a dyadic study of older married couples. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 31.5, 508-529.

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  • Ruth Fuller

    May 24th, 2012 at 4:23 PM

    Taking care of someone that you love and who has substantially gone downhill can be very tiring. Not to mention how sad it makes you feel remembering the person that he used to be but can’t be anymore. I think that that is why you see so many couples who die one right after the other, because once one of them is gone the other knows that they can now go too because they don’t have to take care of the other person anymore.

  • janna

    May 25th, 2012 at 1:49 PM

    I can see how men could be more affected by the health of their wives than women are when it comes to the health of the husband.
    I think that in general, and I am not saying this to be negative, men are far more dependent on their wives than she is on him. I know that men are often the breadwinners, but basically most of them, especially those of the older age groups are helpless when it comes to doing simple things around the house like cleaning and cooking.
    This is one reason why I think men get so distraught. They are losing their mate, yes, but also the one who always kept the house humming along.
    Must be really frightening to start having to think about learning how to do all of this when you get to an older age like that.


    May 26th, 2012 at 1:01 AM

    Health of any family member can have an effect on you.And when it comes to a partner you been with for years and decades this effect will only go higher.Support groups can do a lot in preventing negative effects in the spouses of those with health problems.

  • Taylor

    May 26th, 2012 at 5:50 AM

    I don’t just see this as a male or female thing. This could affect anyone, especially someone who has been married a long time. It would be so heartbreaking to consider life without someone who knows you better than anyone else in the world.

  • Jerry B

    May 28th, 2012 at 7:14 AM

    I am always in tune with how my wife is feeling and when she feels bad then I do too. This probably only increases as you get older because of the sheer amount of time that you have spent with this person over the years.

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