Seriously sick spouse increases partner's risk of death, study finds

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When a spouse is hospitalized with a serious illness, the other spouse has a greater chance of dying, a new study finds.

The study, which is published in the Feb. 16 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, found that having a sick spouse is about one-fourth as bad for a partner's health as having a spouse actually die. Certain conditions, such as dementia, stroke and hip fracture further increased the risk of death.

The most dangerous period is 30 days within a spouse's hospitalization or death. The mortality risk increased with age and, for women of a hospitalized husband, with poverty. Researchers studied more than half a million couples over 65 years old who were enrolled in Medicare from 1993 through 2001.

Certain illnesses take a greater toll on a spouse. If a husband's wife is hospitalized with psychiatric disease, a partner's risk of death is 19% higher. And if one's wife is hospitalized with the principal diagnosis of dementia, mortality risk for the husband is 22% higher. Similar effects are seen in women whose husbands are hospitalized.