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Spouse's hospitalization increases partner's risk of death, new study 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), part of 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
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Contact: Jeannine Mjoseth
301-496-1752
NIH/National Institute on Aging
15-Feb-2006


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