Widowhood has been known to increase the probability of dying for the surviving spouse, but many questions remain about the reasons for this greater risk of mortality. A recent study of data from the Health and Retirement Study attempts to look at explanations for this association, as well as which factors might be associated with variations in the risk of mortality among those who have lost a spouse. Specifically, the study looks at how the relationship of widowhood and mortality differs by gender, age, socioeconomic status, and whether the spouse’s death was expected or unexpected. The size of the study makes this investigation possible, with a total of 15,935 married individuals over 50 when the study began, of which 2,052 became widowed.
Looking at the data from this study, the researchers found that without controlling for other factors that might influence mortality, the risk of death for widows was 26 percent greater compared to those who remained married. When adjusting for the impact of race/ethnicity and gender, becoming widowed was associated with a 48 percent increase in the risk of death. When education and wealth are factored into the analysis, the increase in the risk of death among widows is 32 percent greater than for married individuals. This suggests that education and wealth are both protective against mortality. The study also shows that risk of mortality is substantially elevated immediately following widowhood, and is reduced over time.
Looking into variables that may contribute to the effect of widowhood, these researchers found that there was no significant difference in the effect of widowhood for those individuals who were widowed between 50 and 65 compared to those widowed over 65. Although wealth and education were both associated with lower mortality for both the married and the widowed, comparing the married and the widowed showed that the strength of the association between these factors and mortality did not differ significantly across these two groups. Similarly, the researchers did not find a difference between the married and the widowed in the impact of socioeconomic status on mortality.
Finally, the researchers looked at the impact of whether a spouse’s death was unexpected or not, and found this to differ across gender. For males, unexpected widowhood led to a 56 percent increase in mortality. For women, there was no statistically significant increase in risk for mortality between the unexpected death of a spouse and the expected death of a spouse. Other than this, the researchers concluded that “we find little difference that men and women differ in mortality penalty of widowhood.”
The researchers of this study suggest that these findings, taken together, may reflect the importance of social support. For example, individuals with higher income and education may have greater social support, which would account for the protective effects of income and education on mortality. Additionally, they suggest that the greater mortality among men whose spouses die unexpectedly could reflect men receiving greater social support from marriage than women, and an expected death would not allow for time to develop alternative sources of support. In light of this, these researchers suggest that greater attention should be paid to which specific social support pathways contribute to widowhood’s association with poorer health. In addition, it will be important to examine which factors are used to ameliorate the shock of losing a spouse, and to look into how individuals in later life respond to changes in social support.
Sullivan AR and Fenelon A. “Patterns of widowhood mortality.” The Journals of Gerontology (2014); 69(1): 53–62.