Widows show third-year rebound

A widow typically struggles with grief immediately after her husband dies. By 3 years after the loss, however, these women have largely overcome grief-related problems, such as depression, social isolation, bodily pains, and poor eating habits, according to a large U.S. study of 50- to 79-year-olds.

The findings underscore the resilience of older women faced with sea changes in their lives, say Sara Wilcox of the University of South Carolina in Columbia and her coworkers. The data also highlight a need for social and mental-health programs for women within the first year of their husbands’ deaths, the researchers say in the September Health Psychology.

Using surveys and medical data, Wilcox’s group first focused on the responses of 72,247 women who had been widowed in the past year, widowed for more than 1 year, or married. The researchers then examined 3-year follow-up data for 55,724 of those women.

Compared with married women, widows reported worse physical and emotional health and less-healthful daily habits, including irregular exercise and failing to eat fruits and vegetables. Such problems were most prominent in recent widows.

Three years later, the women who had been recently widowed at the start of the study reported marked improvements in mental health and social activity, with smaller gains in physical health. The death of a spouse may have relieved many of these women from the strain of constant caregiving or allowed them to seek support from friends or mental-health workers, the researchers theorize. During the 3 years of the study, longer-term widows showed slight mental and physical advances.


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Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.