The “Widowhood Effect” Is Real



With the recent death of Barbara Bush and George H. W. Bush being hospitalized the day after her funeral, many wondered if you can die from a broken heart.  How many times have you seen a couple that has been married for many years, were inseparable and when one partner dies, the other passes a few months later?

It’s long been known that widowhood can increase the risk of hospitalization and dying. In one nationally representative study of the “widowhood effect” researchers found the death of a wife was linked with an 18 percent increase in mortality for men. And the death of a husband was linked with a 16 percent boost in mortality for women.

The reasons for this are complicated and still mysterious. There is a condition called “broken heart syndrome” also known as stress or Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy.  Yes, you can literally die from a broken heart.

In these cases, taxing events — even joyous ones — cause stress hormones to surge in a way that can lead to an abnormal heart contraction. “This can cause chest pain in the acute setting and lead to heart failure in both the short and long term,” explained Julie Clary,  chief cardiology fellow at the Krannert Institute of Cardiology at Indiana University.

Other scientific research has repeatedly shown that our health is incredibly fragile after we’ve endured an emotional upheaval, especially the death of a loved one. Losing a loved one can mean losing the routines we depend on for stable health. Often, the surviving spouse is so lost, that taking care of themselves is not a priority.

A large study on this subject from the University of Wisconsin found that the widowhood effect isn’t as commonly seen among people whose spouses died of diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.  It was found there was no increased chance of death in these cases, and only a very slight increased risk in spouses of those who died of certain cancers. In these cases, the grieving spouse had time to prepare for the death, something called anticipatory grief. The sadness of the loss is just as great, but the shock isn’t so severe.

Both men and women also respond differently to the death of their spouse. In general, men tend to be more vulnerable to the widowhood effect. Men are affected more socially than women. Women tend to maintain social relationships and friendships outside of marriage, so when the female spouse dies first, men tend to lose out on these social relationships and support groups and they tend to isolate themselves. Women maintain their friendships and relationships and lean on them for support after their spouse dies.

The bright side: The relationships we have matter deeply to our health, but they can also protect us.

Strong bonds with others are associated with a great many positive things. The fortitude of social connections is a predictor of resistance to Alzheimer’s and overall mental health including fighting depression. Studies find people with strong bonds tend to live longer than others. In contrast, some experts say loneliness is as bad for the heart as smoking.

Humans are social creatures; our entire psychology is built on coexisting with one another. Social relationships guide our decisions to join groups, seek out religious organizations, sports teams, reconnect with old friends, date and marry. Having evolved this way means we can suffer without the companionship of others — but then again, thrive when we have it.

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



Julia Belluz and Brian Resnick

Melissa Dahl




Laura Kay House, MA, is the founder and owner of  Silver Connections, located in the Triangle area of North Carolina.  For a decade, Silver Connections has provided numerous local events, domestic and international travel, personal service, quality members and connections for age 55+, active and single adults.