Widowhood Ups Death Risk for Whites, Not Blacks

Amy Norton, Reuters, March 8, 2006

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.

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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.

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