The ‘widow effect’ is real

2 min read

In findings that highlight how health effects can reverberate through a social network, a researcher at HMS and his colleague report that the serious illness of an elderly spouse increases the risk of death of a husband or wife. In fact, a few illnesses in a spouse, such as dementia, may pose more of a risk to the partner than if the spouse had died.

It was already known that disease in one spouse can harm the health of a partner. Many studies have shown that a spouse’s demise can be fatal to the other half. The new analysis extends this literature.

“We showed that you can die of a broken heart not just when a partner dies, but when a partner falls ill,” said lead author Nicholas Christakis, HMS professor of medical sociology in the Department of Health Care Policy and a sociology professor in the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “This is a hard and unambiguous endpoint.”

The study, in the Feb. 16 New England Journal of Medicine, may be the largest study to quantify how a spouse’s illness or death, or both, affects the subsequent risk of death in a husband or wife. The researchers analyzed the health records of a half million married couples older than 65 enrolled in Medicare in 1993, and they tracked diagnoses, hospitalizations tions, and deaths through 2001.