May-June 2006 / Sudden
By Sandra Ray, Staff
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
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
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
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