Being a widow can be good for a woman’s health because they suffer less stress after her husband dies, according to new research.
Women who have lost a spouse are much less likely to suffer frailty in their twilight years than peers whose partners are still very much alive. But the same is not the case for men who become more at risk of wasting away once their wives die - possibly because they have become over reliant on them.
Dr Caterina Trevisan, of the University of Padova, said the presence of a wife may bring benefits for men in terms of household management and healthcare, whereas women are “more likely to feel stressed and find their role restrictive and frustrating.” She explained: “Since women generally have a longer lifespan than men, married women may also suffer from the effects of caregiver burden, since they often devote themselves to caring for their husband in later life.”
Dr Trevisan said these factors may be behind the lower risk of depression in unmarried women following research revealing women had more marital problems and less wellness in marriage than men. The same study also found single women experienced less discomfort than bachelors, greater job satisfaction and higher activity levels at work, and a lower risk of social isolation, as they maintained stronger relationships with family or friends.
Dr Trevisan said: “Consistently with this picture, the higher educational level and better economic status seen among the single women in our study may well reflect a social condition that would promote a greater psychological and physical well being.
“Finally, widows cope better than widowers with the stress deriving from the loss of a partner and widowhood, with a significant increase in the risk of depression only in the latter.”
Many studies have shown that women are less vulnerable to depression than men in widowhood, probably because they have greater coping resources and are better able to express their emotions.
“These aspects may help to explain the lower risk of exhaustion seen in single women, who are likewise more socially integrated than single men, and consequently less exposed to frailty,” said the doctor.
It is well known married people generally live longer than their single counterparts, who are said to have a worse diet and drink more alcohol.
But the study of almost 2,000 over 65s shows the well accepted association between marital status and fitness has “gender specific differences” among older individuals. Most notably, widows were about 23 per cent less likely to be frail than married women, reports the Journal of Women’s Health. Dr Trevisan and colleagues expected singletons would be more likely to be doddery in old age, as being married has traditionally been associated with reduced risk of disability and death.
The study followed 733 and 1,154 Italian men and women respectively for four and a half years and found the prediction held true for elderly men. Our results partially contrast with previous reports of a weaker, but still protective effect of marriage on mortality, health status, and depression in women, as in men.
“However, sociological studies have suggested unmarried status is more disadvantageous for men than for women, and marriage protects the male gender more than the female one.” She added: “Unmarried and widowed men were at a higher risk of becoming frail, while widowed women were significantly less exposed to frailty. The main determinants of frailty that seemed to be most influenced by marital status were unintentional weight loss, daily energy expenditure, and exhaustion.
“Further research is needed to see whether recent changes in our social structure influence the impact of marital status on the onset of frailty.”
Journal editor Professor Susan Kornstein said: “This study adds to our understanding of how marital status influences the onset of frailty in older people, but reveals surprising gender specific differences.”
Bachelors and widowers were almost four and about one and a half times more likely, respectively, to be frail than their hitched peers. But widows had an unexpectedly lower risk of this than married women, according to the findings. And there was no significant link with frailty for elderly spinsters, who were also less likely to suffer weight loss and exhaustion than women who were married.
Doctors and nurses examined participants at city hospitals, recording information on their formal education, physical activity, monthly income, smoking and drinking habits. Physical performance was examined to assess frailty by measuring hand grip strength, with balance and walking speed also assessed and personal interviews classified subjects as married, never married and widowed.
Dr Trevisan said: “Unlike the results seen for male gender, widowed women showed a significantly lower risk of frailty than married women, with a lower incidence of unintentional weight loss or low daily physical activity levels.”