A sick husband or wife who needs to be admitted to hospital increases the risk of death for their spouse, the latest findings show.
Researchers attribute this to the stress and upheaval the partner experiences while enduring the hospitalization of an ailing husband or wife.
"It's not like your spouse's sickness somehow magically makes you worse," said Dr. Nicholas A. Christakis, a professor of medical sociology at Harvard Medical School's Department of HealthCare Policy. "We believe it works by imposing some kind of burden."
To unravel the connection, Christakis and co-researcher Paul D. Allison, a statistician from the University of Pennsylvania, examined records of more than a half million couples who were in enrolled in Medicare from 1993 through 2001, and their findings reveal the ripple effect of a spouse's hospitalization -- across various illnesses -- on the partner's health.
They published their findings on the Feb. issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.
"What this work shows is that illness in one person -- in a spouse -- can affect the health, the mortality, of another person," Christakis said. "And this, in turn, means taking better care of someone who's sick not only benefits the sick person, but also benefits other people, such as their spouse."
Overall, Christakis' study found that a spouse's hospitalization boosted the risk of a man's death by 22 percent compared with the death of a spouse. A husband's hospitalization increased a woman's death risk by 16 percent.
Some diseases posed more of a burden than others. For example, a woman's hospitalization for stroke, congestive heart failure or hip fracture raised her husband's death risk by 6 percent, 12 percent and 15 percent, respectively.
Similarly, a man's hospitalization for colon cancer did not significantly influence his wife's death risk, but other diseases did have a major impact.
A spouse's hospitalization for dementia proved most stressful, raising the risk of death 22 percent for men and 28 percent for women, Christakis said. "In fact," he added, "we show that having a demented spouse is as bad for you as having a dead spouse."
The study also identified certain time frames during which caregivers are particularly vulnerable, including immediately after a hospitalization and again three to six months into the illness.
(Agencies via Xinhua News Agency February 13, 2008)