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Sick Spouse Increases Risk of Death for Partners - Mortality Rate Depends on Illness

February 16th 2006

Sick Spouse Increases Risk of Death for Partners - Mortality Rate Depends on Illness

Nicholas Christakis

A new report suggests that hospitalization of a spouse for a serious illness also increases their partner’s risk of death.  They even found that some diagnoses raise the risk even more, including dementia, stroke, and hip fracture. 

The study, funded by the National Institute on Aging (NIA) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), found that the spouse’s risk of death remains elevated for an extended period of time.  One of the investigators, Nicholas A. Christakis, M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H., of Harvard Medical School, said “When a spouse is hospitalized, the partner’s risk of death increases significantly, and remains elevated for up to two years.”

Researchers have known for some time that our social network is important to health.  Even family pets have been known to boost ones health. Richard M. Suzman, Ph.D., Associate Director of the NIA for Behavioral and Social Research, said “This highly innovative study — in an enormous sample of older people — demonstrates yet another important connection between social networks and health.”


Christakis and his colleagues studied more than half a million couples over the age of 65 who were enrolled in Medicare from 1993 through 2001.  During a one year period, they found that having a sick spouse “is about one fourth as bad for a partner’s health as having a spouse actually die.”  The period of greatest risk is 30 days after the spouse’s hospitalization or death, and the mortality risk is higher with ones age.  Also, women were at greater risk if their husband was hospitalized, compared to a man if the wife were hospitalized.  Poverty increased the mortality risk as well.

The type of illness mattered.  The researchers found that if the wife was hospitalized with colon cancer there was almost no effect on the husband’s mortality.  But if the wife was hospitalized with heart disease the risk shot up to 12%, and for a psychiatric disease it rose 19%. Dementia increased the risk of a husband’s death 22%.  The result was “similar” if the roles were reversed and the husband was sick.


Interference of the spouse’s mental and physical ability had more of an impact than the extent of the illness.  Christakis said “The study suggests that diseases that are more disabling are more likely to result in disease and death in the care-giving spouse.”   It may also drain the partner of emotional, economic or other practical support. 

Christakis would like doctors to realize that if they are taking care of a patient, they are also taking care of the patient’s spouse.  “So helping one person might help others,” the report said.

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Copyright 2005 Best Syndication                                            Last Updated Saturday, July 10, 2010 09:50 PM