Contact: Atina Manvelian, MA
For Release: Immediately
The death of a spouse, an experience sure to become increasingly common for the huge Baby Boom generation, can imperil the health of a surviving partner: Widowers are nearly twice as likely as similar married men to die within six months of losing their partners, while widows have a 10% to 20% higher death rate than comparable married women. Bereaved spouses are also more likely than the married to be diagnosed with cancer and to have heart attacks or strokes within six months of their mate’s death.
But is there any way to reduce the serious health toll on widowers and widows, any preventive strategies? A unique new study suggests that having at least four close relationships might help the widowed live longer after the loss of their partners. The study, published ahead of print, will appear in a forthcoming issue of Psychosomatic Medicine, journal of the American Psychosomatic Society.
The study used a nationally representative U.S. sample of 2,347 adults aged 57 to 85 at the start. Initially, about one-quarter of them were widowed, the rest married or living with a romantic partner. In interviews at participants’ homes and questionnaires, the researchers asked about basic demographic information such as income and education; health-related behaviors, for example exercise and smoking habits; and their perceived level of stress and symptoms of depression. They also asked participants how many family members they felt close to and how many friends they had. Living participants were contacted again about five and 10 years later, with death statistics collected for those no longer alive.
Ten years after the first contact, the findings revealed:
** For participants who were married at the start of the study, roughly 25% died over the 10-year follow-up period. In contrast, 43% of the widowed participants were no longer alive.
** For married adults, no association was found between the number of close relationships they reported and their mortality risk 10 years later. A comparable mortality risk was noted for those who were widowed and had four or more close relationships.
** But adults who were widowed and reported fewer than four close relationships at the start of the study experienced the highest death rate: About 59 percent of them had died 10 years later.
“The risk associated with having fewer close ties as a widowed older adult is comparable to the elevated risk of death that is associated with smoking cigarettes or being seven years older,” says lead study author Atina Manvelian, MA, a PhD candidate in clinical psychology at the University of Arizona. She worked with colleague David Sbarra, PhD, Professor of Psychology.
The findings were significant even after taking account of health, demographic and psychological variables that may influence mortality.
But while suggestive, the study does not prove that having a larger number of close ties can cause someone to have a longer life, Manvelian notes. It may be that those who are better at maintaining a large support network have other qualities that could extend their lives, she adds.
On the other hand, the findings fit with abundant evidence that close ties to other people improve health and extend life. “Close relationships may buffer us from the day-to-day stresses of life, so our bodies aren’t as reactive,” Manvelian says. “Our close contacts can also encourage healthy behavior—getting us to exercise more, go to the doctor, take medications and not drink so much alcohol. These are tangible behaviors that could dramatically change the trajectory of our lives.”
Particularly for older people, loneliness can become a big problem, she adds. So gathering a circle of close comrades may be good for the spirit and the body. It remains to be seen how the social isolation associated with the COVID-19 epidemic might interfere with these benefits and whether “virtual” social connection affords the same health protection.
Study Link: https://doi.org/10.1097/PSY.0000000000000798
The American Psychosomatic Society (APS) (http://www.psychosomatic.org), founded in 1942, is an international multidisciplinary academic society that conducts an annual scientific meeting and educational programs. Psychosomatic Medicine is its scientific journal. The membership of over 700 is composed of academic scientists and clinicians in medicine, psychiatry, epidemiology, health psychology and allied health services. The mission of the APS is “to advance and integrate the scientific study of biological, psychological, behavioral and social factors in health and disease.”