Campus & Community

Study says ‘widower effect’ is real

2 min read

HMS study shows spousal illness can be bad for your health

A spouse’s illness can not only be bad for your health, it can kill you, according to a new study of couples over age 65 that highlights the importance of social networks to a person’s health.
The study, by researchers at Harvard Medical School and the University of Pennsylvania, shows that the impact of a spouse’s illness on his or her partner’s health can be as bad as or worse than it would be if the spouse had died.

A man’s hospitalization for a psychiatric disease had the worst impact on a wife’s health, increasing her risk of dying during the study’s nine-year course by 32 percent. His death, by contrast, only increased her risk of dying 17 percent.

A woman’s hospitalization for dementia had the worst impact on a husband’s health, increasing his risk of dying by 22 percent, similar to the increased risk from her death, 21 percent.

Researchers said the increased risk for those and other conditions included in the study is likely due to the stress of providing care for someone incapable of caring for him- or herself. Researchers studied the impact of several diseases on a husband’s or wife’s risk of death. They found a decreasing risk for illnesses that require less care-giving – even those that are still potentially serious, such as colon cancer or lung cancer, neither of which had an effect on the spouse’s risk of death.

The diseases with the worst impact on the husband or wife’s health were dementia, psychiatric disease, hip or other serious fracture, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and congestive heart failure.

While the “caregiver burden,” or the health effect on a partner when a spouse becomes ill, and the “widower effect” – the chances a survivor will die after a spouse’s death – have each been studied separately, the new study is the first to examine them together.