It’s no surprise that having a family member, especially a partner or spouse, in intensive care can be scary and stressful.

New research from the University of Tokyo School of Public Health in Japan found spouses of ICU patients 27% more likely to return to hospital with a cardiovascular complaint. They were also slightly more likely to have been diagnosed with high blood pressure, diabetes, or high cholesterol.

In addition, the spouses were most likely to return the month their partners were in intensive care.

The study looked at nearly 8,000 couples in whom one partner stayed in intensive care for two days or more. The researchers tracked what happened to the out-of-hospital spouses and compared them to people of the same age and sex who did not have a partner in the hospital. Interestingly, the spouse’s most consistent response was heart-related, although the ICU patients had a number of medical conditions.

This study did not consider the baseline condition. Any couple who have spent a lazy evening at home on the couch instead of going for a jog know that one partner’s health choices affect the other. Research has found that romantic partners tend to have similar body mass indexes.

So is it possible that lifestyle factors that contribute to a person’s health problems can cause the same problems in a partner? Perhaps, but this study supports the possibility that there are other, complex, and possibly emotional factors that affect the heart.

Much research suggests that spouses who lose their partner are at higher cardiovascular risk. There is even something called “broken heart syndrome”. According to the American Heart Association, the medical name is stress-induced cardiomyopathy. This means that due to stress, often due to something negative like the death of a loved one, but sometimes due to a good surprise, part of the heart stops pumping properly, causing chest pain and an irregular heartbeat. It is very treatable in the long term, but it can still cause short-term damage.

While more research is needed to understand the emotional and physiological burden stress puts on the heart, there may be an opportunity to intervene – especially after something as stressful as a spouse’s hospitalization – and save lives.

Sabrina Emms is a science journalist. She began as an intern on a health and science podcast on Philadelphia public radio. Before that, she worked as a researcher studying the way bones are formed. When she is not in the laboratory and at her computer, she is in the moonlight as an assistant to a pig veterinarian and bagel baker.

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