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Spousal illness can trigger partner death

In the largest study ever to quantify caregiver burden and the widower effect, researchers found that for people aged 65 and older, hospitalization of a spouse can harm the wellbeing of his or her partner and significantly contribute to that partner's death. This risk also varies with the ill spouse's diagnosis. The study appears in the Feb. 16 New England Journal of Medicine. "Our study shows that people are connected in such a fashion that the health of one person is related to the health of another," reports Nicholas Christakis, MD, PhD, professor in the Department of Health Care Policy at Harvard Medical School.

With coauthor Paul Allison, PhD, professor and chair of the University of Pennsylvania Department of Sociology, Christakis examined the effect of illness in one spouse on the risk of illness in a partner--commonly called the "caregiver burden." Concurrently, they looked at the effect of the death of one spouse on the mortality of the other, known as the "widower effect." By considering these effects together for the first time, the authors were able to assess the implications of specific illnesses or diseases for a partner's risk of death.

The findings, says Christakis, are 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 period of greatest risk is over the short run, within 30 days of a spouse's hospitalization or death. Over this time frame, hospitalization in a spouse can confer to a partner almost as much risk of dying as the actual death of a spouse.

"Spousal illness or death may impose stress on a partner or deprive a partner of social, emotional, economic, or other practical support," says Christakis. "When a spouse falls ill or dies, partners may increase harmful behavior, such as drinking. Stress and lack of social support may also adversely affect immunologic measures, so spousal hospitalization may have physiological ef
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Source:Harvard Medical School


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