|Spouse’s Hospitalization Increases Partner’s Risk of Death,
New Study of a Half-Million Couples Shows
Most people have heard stories about an older person who “dies of a broken
heart” shortly after their partner’s death. A new study finds that hospitalization
of a spouse for a serious illness also increases their partner’s risk of death.
Further, the risk is greater with certain diagnoses, such as dementia, stroke,
and hip fracture. The study was sponsored by the National Institute on Aging
(NIA) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The report, by Nicholas A. Christakis, M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H., of Harvard Medical
School, and Paul D. Allison, Ph.D., of the University of Pennsylvania, is the
first to measure a link between a spouse’s hospitalization and increased mortality
of their partner across a comprehensive range of spousal diseases. The findings,
says Christakis, were striking. “When a spouse is hospitalized, the partner’s
risk of death increases significantly and remains elevated for up to two years,” he
notes. The study is published in the Feb. 16, 2006, issue of the New England
Journal of Medicine.
“This highly innovative study — in an enormous sample of older people — demonstrates
yet another important connection between social networks and health,” says Richard
M.Suzman, Ph.D., Associate Director of the NIA for Behavioral and Social Research. “We
don’t yet know the full extent to which social networks affect health. We need
to explore the mechanisms behind the stresses associated with these hospitalizations
as we look for ways to protect people when their central relationships are disrupted.”
Christakis and colleagues studied more than half a million couples over 65 years
old who were enrolled in Medicare from 1993 through 2001. Over that period, the
study found that, overall, having a sick spouse is about one fourth as bad for
a partner’s health as having a spouse actually die. Some spousal diseases, such
as hip fracture or psychiatric conditions, were nearly as bad for partners as
it would be if the spouse actually died. The period of greatest risk is over
the short run, within 30 days of a spouse’s hospitalization or death, the researchers
noted, when the risk of death upon a spouse’s hospitalization is almost as great
as that when a spouse dies. The mortality risk increased with age and, for women
of a hospitalized husband, with poverty.
The illness responsible for the spouse’s hospitalization also matters. For example,
among men with hospitalized wives, if their wife is hospitalized with colon cancer,
there is almost no effect on the husband’s subsequent mortality. But if the wife
is hospitalized with heart disease, the risk of death for a husband is 12 percent
higher compared to the wife not being sick at all. If one’s wife is hospitalized
with psychiatric disease, a partner’s risk of death is 19 percent higher. And
if one’s wife is hospitalized with the principal diagnosis of dementia, mortality
risk for the husband is 22 percent higher. Similar effects are seen in women
whose husbands are hospitalized.
The more a disease that causes a hospitalization interferes with the patient’s
physical or mental ability, regardless of the extent to which it is deadly, the
more of an impact it may have for the partner of the ill person, the researchers
suggest. “The study suggests that diseases that are more disabling are more likely
to result in disease and death in the caregiving spouse,” Christakis says. Spousal
illness might also deprive the partner of emotional, economic, or other practical
support, or might impose stress on the caregiver which may contribute to their
risk of death, the investigators theorize.
Christakis and his colleagues are interested in the health consequences of social
networks. The impact of the death of one spouse on the mortality of the other
is one well-known example. The impact of illness is a further example. “People’s
health is interconnected,” Christakis says. “When we take care of people when
they’re sick, we’re also taking care of the patients’ spouses. So helping one
person might help others. Such benefits should be included in any cost-benefit
analyses of interventions.
News releases, fact sheets and other NIA-related materials are available on
the NIA Web site at www.nia.nih.gov.
The NIA leads the federal effort supporting and conducting research on aging
and the medical, social and behavioral issues of older people. A substantial
part of NIA's research involves ways to prevent frailty and reduce disability
with age. For more information, call 1-800-222-2225 or go to the NIA website
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) — The Nation's Medical Research
Agency — includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of
the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services. It is the primary Federal
agency for conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical
research, and it investigates the causes, treatments, and cures for both common
and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit http://www.nih.gov.