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Spouse's hospitalization increases partner's risk of death, new study shows

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
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Contact: Jeannine Mjoseth
301-496-1752
NIH/National Institute on Aging
15-Feb-2006


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