My day job is writing about science and medicine, and over the past decades I have read hundreds, if not thousands, of scientific papers. They rarely start with a Shakespeare quote and a discussion of poetry and fiction. The text above is taken from a 1986 letter to the British Medical Journal by Dr Brian McAvoy, then a senior lecturer at the University of Leicester.
The letter, called Death After Bereavement, talks about the increased risk of death after losing a partner, with a higher risk for men, and for people who are bereaved young. Dr McAvoy found the risk to be higher in the first six months for women, and in the second year for men.
This increased risk of death has become known as the widowhood effect, and has been confirmed in other studies and in meta-analyses (scientific papers that combine the results from a number of previous studies). A study from March 2023, in people over 65, showed that the risk of death was highest in the first year after bereavement, and higher in men than women. Overall, the risk of death was 70% higher for men aged 65–69 years, and stayed higher for six years. For women in the same age group, the risk was 27% higher in the first year.
Widowhood effect causes of death include cancer, cardiovascular disease, infections, accidents and suicide.
Why does this happen?
It’s not clear why the widowhood effect happens, or why the impact is greater in men. There are a number of potential reasons:
What to do
Self-care is important after bereavement, and it’s more than just a bubble bath. It’s about getting sleep, eating as well as you can, keeping in touch with people, and seeking medical care when you need it. Psychotherapy and counselling can also really help if you are struggling.
I was widowed at 50 when Tim, who I expected would be my happy-ever-after following a marriage break-up, died suddenly from heart failure linked to his type 2 diabetes. Though we'd known each other since our early 20s, we'd been married less than ten years.