I see it all the time, it is as real as anything I could tell you. Here is the story on ObitMag.com
The Widower Effect
by Thomas Conner
MAY 26, 2011
I can’t live if living is without you …
— “Without You,” a song by Pete Ham and Tom Evans
Tim Robbins landed in Australia last month, thinking the worst was past. The famous actor-director (The Shawshank Redemption) had traveled Down Under for a new gig, this time as a musician. Furthering the legacy of his father, folk musician Gil Robbins — a member of the Highwaymen in the early 1960s (“Michael”) — Tim was booked for several performances with his new folk-rock group, the Rogues Gallery Band, which included his brother David. But the experience was bittersweet for both of them. Gil Robbins, at age 80, had died nearly two weeks earlier.
But after arriving in Sydney, Robbins learned that his mother, Mary Robbins, also a musician, had died as well. Just 12 days after Gil passed away from prostate cancer, Mary, 78, died in the same house in Esteban Cantu, Mexico. Her cause of death, according to the Associated Press, was a heart arrhythmia.
Stories like this one are not uncommon. A newspaper in Abilene, Texas, reported in February the death of two couples close together — Elsie Lawson died suddenly just 15 hours after Ken, her husband of 59 years, and Mattie Mae Bradford passed away four days after her husband, Red, who’d been with her for 63 years. That same month in Wales, a couple “who had been inseparable for most of their 55 years of marriage” died within minutes of each other from separate conditions. In March, a New Orleans couple married for 55 years died within four days of each other.
Our human instincts often leap to a romantic conclusion in these incidents. Gil and Mary Robbins had been married for 59 years — Mary must have died of a broken heart. Not exactly. While there is a condition in medicine called “broken-heart syndrome” (stress cardiomyopathy, a temporary heart ailment caused by an intense and prolonged adrenaline rush), science has amassed a heap of evidence supporting the idea that a grieving spouse is much more likely to die within a short period after the death of the loved one. It’s called the “widower effect,” and it simply means that the loss of a spouse can be hazardous to your health.
Researchers first coined the term in the 1960s, but proof for its existence has mounted just within the last several years. In 2007, a study at the University of Glasgow followed 4,000 couples and determined that, on average, widowed spouses were 30 percent more likely to die within six months after the death of their spouse. Another Scottish study, at St. Andrews University in 2010, looked at 58,000 married couples and split the probability between genders over a longer period: 40 percent of men and 26 percent of women died within three years of their partner.
But the widower effect — as well as its causes — was nailed down in a celebrated study published just before Valentine’s Day in 2006. Nicholas Christakis, a doctor at Harvard Medical School, and Paul Allison, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, examined the widower effect within a much larger subject pool, 518,000 couples older than 65, and produced another round of solid stats: “The death of a wife in the previous 30 days increased a husband’s risk of death by 53 percent, and the death of a husband increased a wife’s risk of death by 61 percent. Additionally, the hospitalization of one partner elevated health risks for the other partner for nearly two years.”
Those elevated health risks, Christakis reported, go beyond just married couples. “The widower effect,” he explained in a 2010 TED conference speech about the study, “is not restricted to husbands and wives and … it’s not restricted to pairs of people.” His research since — much of it chronicled in his 2009 book, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, written with James H. Fowler — has focused on the impact of social networks on health.
We’re not talking about Facebook but about real relationships with family and friends: When those networks are intact and functioning, they combat disease. For instance, a woman diagnosed with breast cancer might encourage all her friends to get mammograms. They also can keep a grieving spouse out of the clutches of the widower effect over the longer term. But when those social connections are severed — as frequently happens during caregiving or while grieving — unhealthy behavior often follows, such as drinking, eating poorly or not exercising. A person with diabetes, for instance, may have more difficulty managing the condition alone. “The more socially isolated you are, the greater the risk of illness and death,” adds Jane Potter, president of the American Geriatrics Society, “and this becomes more pronounced with age.”
Consider one more study, the work of Harvard sociologist Felix Elwert. He looked at the differences in the widower effect between white and black couples older than 65. In same-race marriages, he found, whites had a 15-20 percent greater risk of dying shortly after a spouse. In black couples, though, there was no widower effect. “Zero. None,” Elwert emphasized. Deeper in his research, he suggests an explanation of the racial difference. For mixed-race couples, the extent of the widower effect depends on the wife’s race. Husbands of white wives suffer the widower effect, but husbands of black wives don’t. Add another stat: Just 20 percent of older white couples live with extended family; for black couples, it’s 40 percent. “Wives on average are responsible for the kinship network and social life,” Elwert said in a 2007 interview. “Men married to African American women benefited from her stronger community ties.”
If anything, all this research shows that counseling and support groups — institutionalized or informal — are small solace during the grief process. They could be life preservers. Emotional and other kinds of support remain crucial long after you’ve attended the funeral of your best friend’s husband and taken her a casserole. As we learn in so many different situations, individually and as a society, we are stronger — and apparently healthier — when we stand together.
Thomas Conner is the pop music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.