For older adults, the shock of losing their soul mate, can have devastating consequences, especially during the first phase of this new chapter.
© Danielle Robertson Consulting Pty Ltd t/as DR Care Solutions
The first three months are the most delicate, with the latest statistics showing that 66% of surviving partners die within that time period.
While we may phrase it as dying of a broken heart, scientists refer to it as the widowhood effect. The effect has been found among men and women of all ages throughout the world.
Researchers have no definitive answer as to what causes the widowhood effect. They do however point to the impact of grief and, amplifying the grief, the new life situation the surviving partner is thrown into.
Grief can take a toll on the body. And in the lead up to Dying to Know Day 2022 on the 8 August, DR Care Solutions is sharing a series of related articles, all featuring a downloadable, "Guide on Approaches to Comforting a Grieving Loved One or Friend”.
The grief of a widow or widower
A lack of sleep, loss of appetite or the sheer exhaustion of providing care for a lengthy period can decrease the surviving partner’s immunity and strength, leaving them more vulnerable to viruses and other illnesses.
Impact of intense grief on the heart
In 1990, Japanese researchers documented what they called “the broken heart syndrome” or in medical terms stress-induced cardiomyopathy.
This is when the heart is stunned by sudden, acute stress and its left ventricle weakens – taking on a more rounded, pot-like shape – similar to a Japanese octopus trap called a takotsubo. Consequently, Japanese doctors call the condition “Takotsubo cardiomyopathy”.
When the acute intense grief period dissipates, the heart usually recovers and goes back to its normal shape. The syndrome is most commonly experienced by women (90% of cases).
Impact of intense grief on bodily inflammation
A 2018 study found that widows and widowers experiencing intense grief suffered up to 17% higher levels of inflammation in their bodies leading to a considerably higher risk of major depression, heart attack, stroke and premature mortality.
The widowhood effect and one’s socio economic status
Interestingly, a recent Swedish study 2021 found that higher socio-economic status (SES) elevates the widowhood effect for men but diminishes it for women, and that the widowhood effect is greater for women than men in the lowest SES categories.
As men currently continue to earn more than women, this further confirms the findings of an earlier 2001 study which found that men, during the acute grieving period, suffered more on losing their spouse or partner.
Rolled up into grief are the many structural and lifestyle changes experienced by the surviving spouse or partner. They may have lost their role as caregiver or perhaps having been cared for by the deceased must then move to residential care.
The deceased partner may have been the connecting force of social interactions and enabled them to support each other at home, and with them now gone, that social contact may have disappeared leaving the surviving partner isolated.
Guide: Approaches to Comforting a Grieving Loved One or Friend
Seeking care for a loved one? Please feel free to call me, Danielle Robertson, for an initial discussion on how to set up the right care, support and assistance at the right time and in the right place.
 Harvard School of Public Health: 'Widowhood Effect' Greatest in First Three Months
 ABC57: Losing a Long-Term Spouse Can Be Deadly, Studies Show
 Science Daily: For the Brokenhearted, Grief Can Lead to Death
 Taylor & Francis Online: The Gendered Widowhood Effect & Social Morality Gap
 SAGE Journals: Gender Differences in Adjustment to Bereavement - An Empirical & Theoretical Review