Spouse hospitalization boosts death risk for elderly

By Tom Nordlie • Published: June 27th, 2008
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

When people marry they often vow to stay together “’til death do us part.”

And studies have shown it’s not uncommon for people to die shortly after the death of a spouse.

Now it seems the hospitalization of one spouse can also raise the risk of the other’s death.

That’s the conclusion of a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Researchers tracked more than a half-million couples where both spouses were at least sixty-five.

Over a nine-year period, about three-quarters of the husbands and two-thirds of the wives were hospitalized at least once.

The researchers examined data for fifteen conditions, everything from dementia to cancer. They looked at death rates for both partners.

For the spouses who weren’t hospitalized, death was rare.

But there was noticeable variation in their death rates, depending on the illness involved.

For example, when wives were hospitalized for lung cancer, five-point-six percent of husbands died during the first year afterward.

But for wives hospitalized with dementia the husbands’ death rate was eight-point-six percent.

There were comparable differences when husbands were hospitalized.

The researchers said conditions involving serious physical or mental limitations, such as dementia, may cause the most stress for non-hospitalized partners.

And that stress might account for the differences in death rates.

The study underscores the need for elderly couples to have a strong support network.

Family and friends may not take the pain away, but they can ease it.

And that might be enough.