March 8, 2006

Widowhood Ups Death Risk for Whites, Not Blacks

By Amy Norton

NEW YORK -- Research has long shown that older adults face a higher risk of death soon after losing a spouse. But a new study suggests that while the phenomenon affects white spouses, the same is not true of black spouses.

In an analysis of data on more than 400,000 older married couples in the U.S., researchers found that the death of a spouse appeared to substantially increase a white person's risk of dying -- particularly in the months shortly after the loss.

In contrast, there was no such "widowhood effect" among black husbands and wives.

The findings, say the study authors, suggest that African Americans are better able than whites to cope with the death of a spouse -- possibly due, in part, to the types of social support black adults tend to have.

One important factor may be family connections. For example, older black adults are much more likely to live with relatives than their white counterparts are, noted study co-author Felix Elwert, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Harvard University in Boston.

In addition, he told Reuters Health, African Americans are generally "more deeply tied to religious life," and may, for instance, often receive help and emotional support from fellow church members.

Beyond that, Elwert said, older white adults in the U.S. held faster to traditional gender roles throughout their lives compared with black adults their age. That is, black women more often worked outside of the home than white women of their generation, while black men took a greater share of household work than their white counterparts.

This may have imparted a stronger self-reliance among black men and women that helps them carry on after losing a spouse in old age, according to Elwert.

The widowhood effect, he noted, arises "not so much because of a broken heart," but because an older person loses his or her main caregiver, on top of the stress and grief of the loss.

If a man with diabetes loses his wife, for example, he may also lose the person who made sure he ate well and took his medication properly, Elwert explained.

So the differences in self-reliance, family support and religious involvement seen between black and white Americans may help explain the differences in the effects of widowhood, according to Elwert and colleague Nicholas Christakis.

They report their findings in the journal American Sociological Review.

The results are based on government data for 410,272 married couples where both spouses were age 65 or older in 1993. Overall, white men faced an 18 percent increase in their risk of death after losing their wife -- with factors such as overall health, age and economic situation considered. The apparent widowhood effect was akin to being 1.5 years older, according to Elwert.

Similarly, he and Christakis found, white women had a 16 percent increase in their risk of dying.

In sharp contrast, there was no evidence of a widowhood effect among black men or women.

"We were really surprised to find that stark of a difference," Elwert said. "This shows us quite dramatically that the effects of widowhood differ across the population."

More broadly, he noted, the study gives insight into how health and even death can be "socially transmitted."

SOURCE: American Sociological Review, February 2006.