The researchers studied the effects of illness of a spouse on the risk of illness in the other partner in a nine-year study on more than half a million elderly couples.
They found that when a spouse was hospitalized, the partner's risk of death increased significantly and remained higher for up to two years. But the greatest period of risk was within 30 days of a spouse's hospitalization or death, reported the online edition of BBC News.
The couples they recruited were between the ages of 65 and 98. During the nine-year study period, 74 percent of husbands and 67 percent of wives were hospitalized at least once, while half of husbands and one in three wives died.
A husband's death risk rose 53 percent within 30 days of a wife dying, while a wife's mortality risk rose 61 percent, said the New England Journal of Medicine study. The study also found different diseases had different impacts. For example, the hospitalization of a wife for colon cancer or lung cancer had no effect on the husband, but with dementia, the death risk rose 22 percent, they found.
When a spouse falls ill or dies, an increase in the harmful behaviour among the spouse was noticed, such as drinking. Similar effects were seen in women whose husbands were hospitalized, the researchers said.
If a wife was hospitalized with heart disease, her husband's risk of death was 12 percent higher than it would be if the wife were not sick at all.
Overall men had a 21 percent higher risk of death when their wife died compared with a 17 percent increase for a wife after her husband's death - a phenomenon the researchers termed the 'widower effect'.