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Men in this age group are up to 70% more likely to die 1 year after losing a spouse

TODAY 3/24/2023 Caroline Kee

Can you die from a broken heart? The loss of a spouse or partner is a life-changing event, but it may have more dire consequences for some than others. The increased probability that a recently widowed person will die after losing their spouse, also known as the "widowhood effect," has been long-studied by scientists.

New research suggests that spousal loss comes with a much higher mortality risk for men compared to women, and that this risk is even higher among younger men. In a study published on March 22 in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers investigated the impact of spousal bereavement on health care spending and mortality, focusing on age and sex.

Mortality risk after losing a spouse depends on age and sex

After analyzing data from nearly 1 million Danish citizens over the age of 65, they found that men were more susceptible to dying within one year after losing their spouse, specifically men in the youngest age group, 65 to 69 years old.

"Their mortality risk in the first year after the loss was approximately 70% higher than those who still have their spouse in their lives and did not seem to get much better with time," Alexandros Katsiferis, a Ph.D. student in the department of public health at University of Copenhagen and co-author of the study, tells

Among the nearly 80,000 study participants who lost a spouse, the majority (68%) were women. However, females generally did not display a significant, elevated risk after the loss, Katsiferis says. The mortality risk for females ages 65 to 69 years was 27% higher in the first year and normalized after, he adds.

Another interesting finding? Women ages 85 and older had smaller mortality risks after the loss compared to women who still have their spouses in their lives, he adds.

"The last trend that we observed was that the older you experience widowhood, and that’s for both sexes, the smaller was the relative increase of dying," says Katsiferis.

While it is known that losing a spouse increases mortality risk, the findings underscore the importance of demographics on this risk. "It was interesting to find that losing your spouse and the risk of dying strongly depend on whether you are a male or a female, and also on the age you experience the loss,” says Katsiferis.

The consequences of spousal loss on health and mortality, and that men often fare more poorly than women, are fairly well-established, Dawn Carr, PhD, professor of sociology and director of the Claude Pepper Center at Florida State University, tells

What’s different about this research, says Carr, is that it shows there’s a much larger excess mortality risk in the earlier ages than what one would expect. "Younger males are the most frail and have limited recovery potential," says Katsiferis.

It's also known that spousal loss is much more common among women, says Carr, who was not involved with this study. "They were able to observe this unusually high mortality risk for men relative to women, so even though (spousal loss) is less common among men, the consequences seem to be greater," says Carr.

The study did not look at the causes of mortality among those who lost a spouse, says Katsiferis, but this is an ongoing area of research.

Why does mortality risk increase after losing a spouse?

While it is unclear exactly why some spouses' deaths occur in succession, possible explanations have ranged from spiritual to a biological rush of stress hormones, which can lead to cardiac events, previously reported.

Another major factor that impacts many people who lose a spouse is the transition to living alone and dealing with loneliness or isolation, says Carr.

The differences in morality risk after bereavement among the various age groups may also be attributed to the fact that spousal loss and death in general becomes more inevitable as we age.

“This persistently higher mortality risk exhibited by the youngest males could be attributed to the fact that losing your spouse at a (relatively) young age is more of a shock, and there is no time to prepare," Katsiferis explains. By contrast, in the older age groups, there may be more anticipatory grief, he says.

Why are men more likely to die after losing a spouse than women?

It's just speculation, but the experts pointed to social factors that may explain the differences in mortality risk between bereaved men and women.

"Men, especially older cohorts of men, tend to have poorer social networks on average than do older women," says Carr. Not only is it more common for women to be widowed, she adds, women live longer than men, on average.

"They've often cultivated strong social networks with other people, especially other women, before they experience these losses," says Carr, adding that research has shown that older men tend to rely more heavily on their spouses for their social needs to be met.

Katsiferis says that this could also be attributed to the fact that women are more often the caregivers. "If your life is dependent on your spouse taking care of you ... when that person is out of your life, you collapse," he adds.

"Men might also be less inclined to show vulnerability and express their need for mental health support after they suffer bereavement," says Katsiferis, adding that the suppression of emotions could translate to a worsening of their health.

But "the truth is that is almost impossible to explain the direct effect of spousal loss on mortality risk," says Katsiferis, and that there are many social, cultural and religious factors.

“Widowhood ... of course impacts your emotional state but the reaction to loss is also physical, and that enhances the need to further research it,” he adds.

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