New research led by Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) found that the so-called ‘widowhood effect’—an increased chance of dying after a spouse dies—is greatest in the first three months after the loss. The researchers found that widows and widowers were more likely to die than people whose spouses were still living, on average. The effect was strongest in the first three months after a spouse died, when they had a 66% increased chance of dying. While previous research found that men face a greater risk than women of dying soon after a spouse, this study found no difference.
The findings, published online October 28, 2013 in the Journal of Public Health, were based on data from the University of Michigan Health and Retirement study, which surveys more than 26,000 Americans over age 50 every year. The researchers followed 12,316 participants, who were married in 1998, through 2008.
It’s unclear what causes the increased death risk from losing a spouse. “It’s possible it’s a grief-related mechanism, or that providing care for the sick spouse causes illness in the surviving spouse, or that, as one’s spouse gets sicker, the surviving spouse stops taking care of their own health,” said senior author S V Subramanian, professor of population health and geography in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at HSPH, in a November 14, 2013 Reuters article.