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MAGAZINE / May-June 2006 / Sudden Hospitalizations

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Sudden Hospitalizations

By Sandra Ray, Staff Writer

(Page 1 of 2)

According to a new study published in the February 16, 2006 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine and sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, an elderly person’s hospitalization can affect the healthy spouse’s risk of death. The study reviewed areas such as reasons why the spouse was hospitalized, length of the hospitalization, and whether or not the person hospitalized was male or female. The study was carried out over nine years and surveyed more than half a million couples age 65 and older.

The results, reveals researcher Nicholas A. Christakis, M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H. of Harvard Medical School, indicate that the value of social networks in someone’s life is integrally connected to their health. “People’s health is interconnected,” Christakis noted.

The study reveals that if a woman is hospitalized with an illness like colon cancer, her husband may have a slight risk of dying in the next year. If that same woman is hospitalized for heart disease, dementia (or other psychiatric illnesses), or even a hip fracture, her husband’s risk of dying within the next year increases. There are similar findings among women whose husbands were hospitalized. Surprisingly, cancer in either men or women did not increase risks of death.

Many studies have pointed to a spouse essentially dying of a broken heart after the death of their spouse. This study, however, extends that phenomenon to a sudden hospitalization for illnesses like pulmonary disease, congestive heart failure, hip or other serious fractures, as well as other disabling conditions. Christakis said, “This is a hard and unambiguous endpoint.”

The real danger to the healthy spouse seems to lie in the first 30 days of the hospitalizations. As hospitalization stays increased beyond the 30 days, the risk of death decreases for a period of time (three to six months) before that risk goes back up again. Researchers theorize that initial stress and shock may be contributing factors to the increase in death rates. In the early days, regular routines such as meal times, exercise, and other coping strategies may have failed, leaving the healthy spouse vulnerable.

What are Social Networks?

Social networks refer to the amount of “connectedness” that an individual feels in their immediate life. These networks include friends, families, church or civic groups, and other people activities that someone engages throughout the normal course of their life. By their very definition, networks keep someone grounded in their daily life, focused on the next piece that life has to offer.

Social networks can positively or negatively impact lives in many different ways. The realization that people’s lives are connected on many different levels and in many different ways can help medical professionals focus attention on the healthy spouse, rather than devoting all their energies toward the hospitalized spouse. Caregivers should take note of this study and continue to develop coping strategies in order to prevent their health from being adversely affected.


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