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"I Can't Live Without Her": Why Widowed Men Die

The widowhood effect, and the age of highest risk.

Key points

  • The death of a spouse affects people differently, but many experience negative health effects.
  • Men and women are affected differently by the death of a spouse.
  • Man have a higher likelihood of dying themselves after the death of their spouse than women do.

What is the worst thing that you could imagine happening to you?

For many people, it's the death of their spouse. Accordingly, many people experience grief, stress, and negative physical health effects when their spouse dies. Others, however, are largely unaffected by such a tragic event. Which factors determine how somebody is affected by the death of their spouse is not well understood in psychological research.

A New Study on Gender Differences in the Widowhood Effect

One commonly investigated phenomenon in the context of the death of a spouse is the so-called "widowhood effect." The widowhood effect postulates that if one spouse dies, the other one has an increased chance of also dying, compared to other people of the same age. The widowhood effect reflects that the death of a spouse is a highly stressful life event that increases the chance of negative health events like heart attacks in the surviving person.

A study just published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE investigates whether the widowhood effect may be influenced by the biological sex of the surviving spouse (Katsiferis et al., 2023). In the study, led by scientist Alexandros Katsiferis from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, the research teams analyzed data from a large Danish study on more than 900,000 people over the age of 65. The scientists looked at the amount of money spent on healthcare by people who suffered the loss of a spouse and the amount spent by people who didn't. This was done to assess whether the loss of a spouse was associated with an increase in health problems. The researchers also analyzed whether people who experienced the loss of their spouse had a higher chance of dying compared to people who did not lose their spouse.

Men Are More Likely to Die After the Death of a Spouse

Overall, about 8.4 percent of people in the study experienced the loss of their spouse. About 65.8 percent of these people who lost their spouses were women, reflecting that, on average, men die earlier than women.

For healthcare costs, there was a clear difference between men and women. Men who lost their spouse spent an average of 42 Euros per week more, while the increase for women was only 35 Euros, suggesting that men experience more health problems after the death of their spouse than women.

A difference between men and women was also observed in the chance of dying after the death of a spouse, but here age also had an influence. The scientists found out that among those 65 to 69, men had a 70 percent increased chance of also dying in the first year after the death of their spouse. For women in the same age group, the increase was much lower, only 27 percent. This general pattern of males having a higher chance of dying after their spouse’s death remained the same in all other age groups in the study (70 to 74 years, 75 to 79 years, 80 to 84 years, older than 85), but the overall percentages got lower with increasing age.

Taken together, the study showed that men aged 65 to 69 years are most strongly affected by the widowhood effect. In general, men experience a stronger widowhood effect than women. Interestingly, an analysis of timing effects showed that men also showed an increase in the probability of dying after their spouse’s death for much longer than women.

The scientists suggested that this reflects increased problems in men returning to a normal, functioning state after experiencing the loss of their spouse. Women seem to show higher resilience to stress in the situation and better psychological coping mechanisms to return to a normal life. These findings clearly suggest that men (and women) who experience the loss of their spouse should seek help and support from family, friends, or a therapist to deal with stress and grief and not “tough it out.”

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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Katsiferis A, Bhatt S, Mortensen LH, Mishra S, Westendorp RGJ. (2023). Sex differences in health care expenditures and mortality after spousal bereavement: A register-based Danish cohort study. PLoS One, 18, e0282892.

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