Patterns of widowhood mortality

Allison R. Sullivan, Andrew Fenelon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

46 Scopus citations


Objectives. Becoming widowed is a known risk factor for mortality. This article examines the magnitude of, explanations for, and variation in the association between widowhood and mortality. Previous research on widowhood mortality has revealed variation by socioeconomic status (SES), in that SES is not protective in widowhood, and by gender, such that men's mortality increases more than women's mortality after the death of spouse. Method. Using data from the Health and Retirement Study, we estimated Cox proportional hazard models to estimate the association between widowhood and mortality. Results. Becoming widowed is associated with a 48% increase in risk of mortality. Approximately one third of the increase can be attributed to selection, in that those who become widows are socioeconomically disadvantaged. In contrast to previous studies, SES is protective for widows. Widowhood mortality risk increases for men if their wives' deaths were unexpected rather than expected; for women, the extent to which their husbands' death was expected matters less. Discussion. Widowhood's harmful association with mortality show how strongly social support and individual's health and mortality are related. These findings support the larger literature on the importance of social support for health and longevity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)53-62
Number of pages10
JournalJournals of Gerontology - Series B Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2014
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Funding This work was supported by the National Institute of Aging under the training grant (T 32 AG-000177-22) awarded to Beth Soldo at the University of Pennsylvania.


  • Hazard model
  • Marital status
  • Mortality
  • Social support
  • Widowhood


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