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 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."
Some diseases are deadly, but don't pose as much of a burden on the caregiver, be it physical, psychological, financial or some combination of these, he explained.
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.
Suzanne Mintz, president and co-founder of the National Family Caregivers Association, said the study offers additional proof that the stress of caring for a family member can have negative health consequences.
"The findings should frighten family caregivers," she said, "but more importantly, hopefully, help them give priority status to their own health needs."
Spousal family caregivers' risk of depression is six times greater than that of non-caregivers, Mintz noted. And, they are less likely to reach out for help, she said. To protect their health,
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