If we only had a dollar for every time we thought, “My husband/my wife is making me sick!” But rather than a statement of frustration, a new study out suggests this is no laughing matter. A sick spouse can make each and every one of us far more likely to become ill and a husband or wife with a debilitating illness can hasten our own death.
However, the study does not focus so much on communicability of illness; that is, it may not be catching someone else’s virus or disease that can fell you if your husband or wife is ill. Instead, the stress and strain of watching someone we love so deeply can wreak havoc on even a healthy partner. By itself, this is not news. Sometimes called “caretaker’s syndrome” or by other names, medical professionals have long since recognized the toll taken on caretakers of the ill, especially those with a deep love or friendship bond between the sick and healthy parties.
In research published this month after studies were conducted at both Harvard Medical School and the University of Pennsylvania, experts looked at more than a half million elderly couples over a period just shy of a decade. Their work suggests that not only does a healthy spouse face much greater risk of death if their beloved partner succumbs to illness, a non-ill husband or wife may be felled themselves just by the fear and strain of the illness itself.
The study reports that healthy men are 4.5% more likely to die if their wives are hospitalized, while women are 3% more likely if their husbands fall seriously ill. But if a person’s spouse dies, these otherwise small increases can jump five-fold, or an increase of 21% in the death of the surviving husband and 17% for a surviving wife. This apparently holds true even when the surviving spouse had appeared to bear up well during the lost partner’s illness.
The risk of greater chance for death stays high for a period as long as six months to perhaps as long as a year after a spouse dies. There is also some difference between the types of illnesses suffered by the sick spouse; where the illness is pneumonia or heart disease the risk to the surviving spouse is about half that of an illness based in end-stage dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease. Interestingly, however, cancer did not seem to play as large a factor as might be expected in illnesses that put surviving husbands and wives at high risk of death themselves.
Although the study seems to suggest that men are more vulnerable to the effects of the loss of a wife than women are to the deaths of their husbands, researchers say it is not fully clear as yet the exact reasons for this. Those commenting on the study believe it may be because men have a harder time dealing with feelings of helplessness related to an illness while women are often conditioned to play the caregiver role.
Researchers also believe that similar effects can probably be seen in other caregivers. For example, if adult children or siblings are called upon to supply care rather than a spouse, they may also suffer much of the same health risks. This also appears true for very close friends even if no blood relation is present.