NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


February 21, 2006

Seniors who care for spouses who have been hospitalized for certain serious illnesses face an increased risk of premature death, particularly in the first few months after the hospitalization, according to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The study, which researchers believe to be the most comprehensive to date on the health risks of caring for an aging spouse, examined nine years of medical records beginning in 1993 for 518,240 married couples enrolled in Medicare. Most of the participants were over age 70.

The researchers found that:

  • Seniors whose spouses die have a 20 percent increased risk of dying prematurely.
  • During the first year after the death, the risk increases from 5.6 to 6.7 percent for men who lose a spouse and from 2.6 to 3.1 percent for women who lose a spouse.
  • Caring for a spouse who has been hospitalized increases the risk of premature death by about one-quarter as much as being widowed does, according to the researchers.

The diseases in seniors that most increase the risk for their spouses are psychiatric disorders and dementia:

  • Men whose wives are hospitalized for psychiatric illnesses face a 20 percent increased risk of dying -- about the same as being widowed.
  • Women caring for men with psychiatric illnesses face a higher risk of dying than women whose husbands die.

Conditions that have the least impact on spouses' risk include fatal illnesses such as terminal cancer, possibly because such diseases are well defined, often predictable and tend not to rob people of their lucidity until the very end, the New York Times reports.The risk of premature death is highest within 30 days of a spouse entering the hospital or dying and remains elevated for up to two years, according to the researchers.

Source: Benedict Carey, "Study Details Risk of Death for Those Caring for Elderly Spouses," New York Times, February 16, 2006; based upon: Nicholas A. Christakis and Paul D. Allison,"Mortality after the Hospitalization of a Spouse," New England Journal of Medicine, Vol. 354, No. 7, February 16, 2006.

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