MONDAY, Sept. 27 (HealthDay News) -- A large Danish study hints at the devastation suffered by men when their wives or girlfriends are sick: the male partners of women with breast cancer were almost 40 percent more likely than other men to be hospitalized for severe depression and anxiety.

The overall risk of hospitalization among the men was very small, and the new study doesn't prove that the women's cancer directly caused the men to have more psychological problems.

The findings are valuable "because they illustrate in a very dramatic way just how vulnerable husbands are to mental anguish when confronted with a seriously ill wife or in the wake of their death," said Holly G. Prigerson, director of the Center for Psycho-oncology & Palliative Care Research at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, who was familiar with the study findings.

In the study, researchers tracked 20,538 men who lived in Denmark from 1994-2006 and had female partners -- wives or live-in girlfriends -- who developed breast cancer. The study authors, from Denmark and Japan, report their findings in the Sept. 27 online edition of the journal Cancer.

After adjusting their statistics so they wouldn't be thrown off by factors such as education level, the investigators found that these men were 39 percent more likely than other men to have been hospitalized for mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.

The risk of hospitalization was higher among those whose partners had the most advanced cases of breast cancer.

Still, the actual number of hospitalized men was low: just 180 out of 20,538.

The researchers also found that men whose partner died were 3.6 times more likely to be hospitalized than men whose female partner survived and didn't relapse. Still, the number of these cases was also small.

What's boosting the risk of psychological problems in these men? The findings suggest that the men may be stressed by factors such as intense caregiving and the risk of losing their partner, said psychologist Wendy G. Lichtenthal, of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

The men may be suffering from the pain of loss of the person to whom they're most attached and "challenges to their sense of identity as a partner and changes in their daily schedules and patterns now that their domestic partner is gone," Lichtenthal said.

Prigerson said there is another factor that may play a role, called "emotional contagion," which is the spread of a person's emotions to a significant other. "The wife with breast cancer may be vulnerable to depression, and this would spread to her husband."

Lichtenthal pointed out that "a study of this magnitude is significant because it highlights the importance of family-centered care. Patients' partners should be in the medical team's line of sight."

That's especially important because the partners at greatest risk for severe depression may avoid care or become overburdened by other responsibilities, she said. "This is why creating awareness about the increased risk for severe depression among partners is important."

More information

For more on caregiving, go to the National Alliance for Caregiving.