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New Studies Highlight the Emotional and Physiological Bond Between Married Couples

A groundbreaking new study shows that caring for a sick spouse can raise the caretaker's risk of death.

Another study shows that holding hands can reduce anxiety.

Don and Gladys Campbell have been married for 70 years. In their old age, he has suffered a hearing loss. She has lost her eyesight.

"I do most of the hearing for him, a lot of the hearing for him,” says Gladys. “And it works out pretty well that way."

A study of elderly couples, like the Campbells, married for decades, was recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine. It finds for people 65 and older, if one spouse is hospitalized, the other one has a greater chance of dying, and that the risk of death was higher for both men and women whose spouses suffered from stroke, dementia or hip fractures -- illnesses which require a lot of care from the well spouse.

The study examined the medical records of more than half a million elderly couples over a nine-year period. The authors say their findings show that older couples are so interconnected that their medical care needs to take that into account, and that the well partner may need counseling and help in caring for the patient.

Another study, again involving married couples shows that holding hands could have real physiological benefits.

Dr. Richard Davidson from the University of Wisconsin put the wives who volunteered for the study in an MRI machine where they knew they would be given mild electric shocks. Dr. Davidson says when the husbands reached in and held their wives' hands, the areas of the women's brains that register anxiety showed a dramatic reduction in activity.

"All three of these areas showed dramatic reductions in activity when wives, who report very high-quality relationships, are holding the hand of their partners," explained the doctor.

Dr. Davidson says his study shows that affection changes the way the brain releases stress hormones, and that it may make people better able to handle anxiety.