What Is the Widowhood Effect?

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What Is the Widowhood Effect?

The widowhood effect is a phenomenon in which older people who have lost a spouse have an increased risk of dying themselves. Research suggests that this risk is highest during the first three months following the death of a spouse.

A 2014 study published in the Journal of Public Health found that people whose spouses had just died have a whopping 66% increased chance of dying within the first three months following their spouse's death. Prior studies had placed the increased chances of death for the surviving spouse even higher at up to 90%.

Who Is Affected?

Although previous research had reported that men face a greater risk than women of dying soon after a spouse, the 2014 study found equal chances for men and women. It also found that after the first three months, there was still about a 15% increased chance of dying for the surviving spouse.

It seems logical to assume that spouses who were in a close marital relationship will be more depressed following widowhood, and research has backed that up. Perhaps more surprisingly, surviving spouses who owned homes tended to be more depressed, perhaps because they were worried about shouldering the responsibility of caring for the house.

Meanwhile, women who were dependent on their husbands for financial tasks and home maintenance chores tended to have more post-widowhood anxiety, for understandable reasons, research has shown.

Research suggests that sudden, unexpected death may be more stressful for a surviving spouse, but this also varies depending on an individual's situation. The lack of time to prepare often means that the surviving partner abruptly loses both financial and emotional support.

Men tend to experience worse outcomes when their spouse dies abruptly because they lose their primary source of social support. Women appear to experience worse outcomes when a lengthy illness precedes their partner's death due to chronic stress.

Impact of the Widowhood Effect

No one knows what causes this increased risk of death for the surviving spouse. Researchers have suggested a few explanations to explain the widowhood effect. These include:

  • The shared household characteristics of both partners may play a role in elevated mortality rates. 
  • The stress of caring for a ill and dying partner may make a person more susceptible to death.
  • People may chnge their health behaviors following the death of their partner, which elevates their own risk of dying. Surviving spouses stop paying attention to their own health and well-being as their partners' health deteriorates.
  • People also experience changes in their living environment after the death of their spouse, which might impact mortality.

In any case, stress certainly plays a part. The effects of grief can be both physical and emotional. Among some of the symptoms of grief include:

  • Anxiety
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Digestive problems
  • Lack of energy
  • Illness and decreased immunity
  • Pain and discomfort
  • Weight gain or loss

Other studies have looked at the cause of death for the widowed spouse to see if people with certain conditions have a higher risk of dying. It's a complicated analysis.

A study in 2008 found that widowed men have a much higher risk of dying from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), diabetes, an accident or serious fracture, infection, or sepsis in the months following their wives' deaths. Meanwhile, the same study found that widowed women have a much higher risk of dying from COPD, colon cancer, accidents or serious fractures, or lung cancer in the months following their husbands' deaths.

Help for the Recently Widowed

The loss of a spouse can be devastating, but many older people also bounce back more quickly than some might think. Researchers have shown that they tend to regain their earlier levels of health (both physical and psychological health) within about 18 months of their spouse's death.

There are a number of things that people can do to cope in the wake of losing their partner. Some things that may help include:

  • Find support. Social support can help to counter the widowhood effect. If your spouse has just passed away, and you find yourself struggling, reach out to your family and friends for help.
  • Find ways to fill your time. Losing your partner can upend many of your routines and leave an empty space in your life. Finding ways to stay busy and fill your time can help. Pursuing hobbies, going out with friends, and volunteering in your community are just a few things you might try.
  • Go at your own pace. Everyone copes with grief and loss differently, so don't pressure yourself to deal with things or "move on" on a specific timeline.
  • Talk to a professional. Discussing your emotions and experiences with a mental health professional can help you integrate the loss with your life and move forward in a way that will help you adjust to the changes in your life.

In the immediate aftermath of a loss, offering practical assistance such as preparing meals, helping with errands, and taking care of household chores can be enormously helpful. Going forward, you can continue to lend assistance by encouraging them to participate in social activities, listening to them, and finding them other resources that they might need for support.

If a family member or a close friend recently has lost their spouse, offering that person support can help them get through one of the toughest possible times in life.

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