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Felix Elwert: 'The health effects of a spousešs death differ radically between blacks and whites.' (Photo courtesy of Felix Elwert)

Whites more likely than blacks to die soon after spouse's death

Study of 410,272 elderly American couples shows little 'widowhood effect' among blacks

By Steve Bradt
FAS Communications

White Americans are far more likely than their black counterparts to die soon after the death of a spouse, according to new research from Harvard University. The longitudinal study of 410,272 elderly American couples indicates that the "widowhood effect" - the increased probability of death among new widows and widowers - is large and enduring among white couples but undetectable among black couples, suggesting that blacks may somehow manage to extend marriage's well-documented health benefits into widowhood.

The results, by Harvard sociologists Felix Elwert and Nicholas A. Christakis, are published in the February issue of American Sociological Review, available March 1.

"The health effects of a spouse's death differ radically between blacks and whites," says Elwert, a doctoral student in sociology. "We found strong evidence of the widowhood effect among white couples: Men were 18 percent more likely to die shortly after their wives' deaths, and women were 16 percent more likely to die shortly after their husbands' deaths. By contrast, the estimated effect of a black spouse's death on the mortality of his or her surviving spouse is essentially zero."

Nicholas A. Christakis (Photo by Maggie Mastricola/Harvard News Office)

Upon marrying, blacks and whites appear to receive the same health benefits, which previous research has attributed to factors such as emotional support, economic well-being, caretaking when ill, enhanced social support and kinship, and the promoting of healthy behaviors and discouraging of taking risks. Elwert and Christakis suggest such benefits may be longer-lasting for blacks, persisting even after a spouse's death.

Citing prior research, the investigators identify several possible reasons for this enduring marriage benefit among blacks. Almost twice as likely to live with relatives and far more active in religious organizations, elderly blacks tend to have stronger and more extensive social networks than elderly whites. Black couples are also less likely than whites to adhere to a rigidly gendered division of labor, which may reduce mutual dependence.

"Current policy debates on the benefits of marriage, and efforts to promote marriage, tend to assume that marriage exerts a uniform effect on everybody," says Christakis, professor of sociology in Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences, professor of medical sociology in the Department of Health Care Policy at Harvard Medical School, and an attending physician at Massachusetts General Hospital. "Given that widowhood appears more harmful in some groups than others, our results call into question the 'one-size-fits-all' perspective on marital relations."

Elwert and Christakis' study, which followed Americans age 67 or older from 1993 to 2002, included 4,414 interracial couples, the largest such population ever analyzed. Among these couples, the researchers found that the wife's race drives the widowhood effect: Couples with a white husband and a black wife experience a much lower widowhood effect than couples with a black husband and a white wife, a finding that may reflect wives' more active role in shaping a couple's social network.

Elwert and Christakis also found no support for the widespread view that widowhood is more harmful to husbands' health than it is to wives' health. During the first month of bereavement, the risk of death increases 62 percent for women and 52 percent for men, declining sharply until the third month of widowhood for women and the sixth month for men. Between both genders, the risk of death then continues to fall until the second year of bereavement, from which point it remains steady and elevated relative to married individuals.

Elwert and Christakis' research was supported by the National Institutes of Health.


Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College