Protecting Against the Widowhood Effect

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Carrie Steckl earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology with a Minor in Gerontology from Indiana University – Bloomington in 2001. She has spent over ...Read More

“He died of a broken heart.” This is the sentiment often used to describe the sad event of a husband dying soon after losing his wife. The opposite can also happen – a wife becomes a widow, but she does not survive long after his death.

There’s a formal name for this phenomenon: the “widowhood effect.” Researchers have taken an interest in this life and death pattern because they want to know what might cause it as well as when widows and widowers are at highest risk.


The most recent study about the widowhood effect was based on data originally collected for the University of Michigan Health and Retirement Study. Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health reanalyzed that data to see if there was a specific time frame during which the widowhood effect was higher.

It was a sizable study that looked at over 12,000 people who, in 1998, were married and at least 50 years old. Surveys conducted every two years through 2008 allowed the researchers to look at which people became widows or widowers. They then examined if and when the widows and widowers died.

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Here were the researchers’ key findings:

  • Over the 10 years studied, widows and widowers had a higher chance of dying than those who were still married.
  • Widows and widowers had a 66% increased chance of dying within the first three months after a spouse’s death.
  • When income and wealth were taken into account, there was no difference between widows’ and widowers’ chances of dying.

Several theories try to explain the widowhood effect, but research doesn’t support any theory over another. It could be the physical toll of caregiving on the surviving spouse, or it could stem from surviving spouses failing to care take of themselves after becoming widows or widowers.

A lack of social support is another theory of key interest, particularly among sociologists and psychologists. Surviving spouses may have depended on their partners to maintain family and social connections and don’t know how to go about sustaining these relationships on their own.

What’s the takeaway? If you are close to a widow or widower, be there for the person. Initiate visits and keep an eye on whether the person is keeping up healthy habits or is falling into unhealthy ones. You can be a listening ear as well as an inspiration for maintaining wellness in spite of the person’s loss. While it’s not proven that doing these things can keep the widowhood effect at bay, it certainly can’t hurt. In fact, we already know that social support is crucial to our overall wellness.


Jegtvig, S. (November 14, 2013). ‘Widowhood effect’ strongest during first three months. Reuters.

Keep Reading By Author Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.
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