The elderly really can die of a broken heart not only when their spouses die, but even when they are hospitalized.
But the problem reflects increased stress more than romantic loss, according to the first large study to examine the phenomenon.
Studying the Medicare records of more than half a million couples, researchers found that the more burdensome and stressful a spouse’s condition, the more likely their partner would die themselves, according to a report today in the New England Journal of Medicine.
The death of a spouse increases a man’s risk of dying in the next year by 21 percent and a woman’s risk by 17 percent. Hospitalization of a spouse increases the risk almost as much in the first month, but over the long term by only about a quarter of that amount.
“It’s very hard to see someone you love who is sick, it is hard to care for them, and it is hard on your health,” said Dr. Nicholas Christakis of the Harvard Medical School, one of the lead authors of the study. “People are interconnected, and their health is too.”
Dr. Suzanne Solomon of Beth Israel Deaconess medical Center in Boston said couples that have lived together for many years complement each other. “One may handle the checkbook, one may drive, and so forth,” she said.
If you are 40 when your spouse dies, it is possible to learn to take over those tasks, she said. But when you are in your 70s or older, it is much more stressful.
The take-home message from the study, Christakis said, is that “physicians really need to pay as much attention to the spouse as to the sick person, and anticipate the problems that can occur.”