Scottish Longitudinal Study
Development & Support Unit

Completed Projects

Project Title:

Does being widowed increase the risk of death?

Project Number:



Paul Boyle (University of St Andrews)
Zhiqiang Feng (University of St Andrews)
Gillian Raab (University of St Andrews)

Start Date:

Approved on 09-04-2008


Previous studies have consistently uncovered adverse physical and psychological effects following the death of a spouse. Death of a spouse significantly raises a person’s risk of death and poor health. Loss of spouse is not only a stressful event but also leads to loss of social and material support, and role change. Before the death of a spouse care of the spouse may also generate considerable burden for a person, so called “caregiver burden”. However, when time goes by, individuals may gradually adapt to widowhood and risk of mortality and poor health decreases. Some research suggests even further that widowhood may switch to a slight mortality advantage after a long duration (Mineau, et al, 2002). Most studies suggest a short-term effect although some suggest long-term effects. One recent study (Manor Eisenbach, 2003) suggests the risk of death is highest in the first six months for both men and women and the risk gradually declines. Many studies suggest that there is a gender difference in the widowhood effect as the effect is especially pronounced in men instead of women. (Martikainen & Walkonen, 1996). Findings with regard to the effects of widowhood have been hindered, however, by methodological limitations such as lack of adequate comparison groups, non-random samples of the widowed, and lack of data on pre-widowhood status. Avis (1991) found that controlling for pre-widowhood status widowhood does not adversely affect physical health for women. Another methodological issue is that persons who became widow/widower may share some characteristics with their deceased partner. So far no research has taken this on board. We will tackle this problem by using a simultaneous model so as to model the probability of a person becoming a widow/widower and the probability of death or poor health. We will also investigate whether living alone, living with children, and re-marrying have any effects on risks of death and risks of poor health for the widowed. Again the previous studies have been inconclusive. For example some studies suggest living alone raises risks among widow/widowers while others suggest otherwise (Pizzetti & Manfredini, 2008). We will include all SLS members who were married in the 1991 as our study sample. We will use death event data from 1991 and 2001 to identify widow/widowers and also examine the risk of death of widow/widowers. We will use limiting long term illness (LLTI) data recoded in the 2001 census to estimate the risk of poor health for those who became widow/widowers between 1991 and 2001.

The aim of this project is to test whether death / LLTI is more common among men or women who are widowed.

Specific research questions are:

  • Test influence of simultaneously modelling likelihood of becoming widowed (do the widowed share characteristics with their dead partner which makes it more likely they themselves will die?)
  • Are effects reduced if there are children in the household?
  • Are effects worse if living alone (based on information from 1991)
  • Are effects reduced if remarried following widowhood?

However, an interesting point is selectivity. So, men whose partner dies may be more likely to die because of similar health related behaviours etc (not because of stress of being widowed).


Avis, NE., Brambilla, DJ., Vass, K and McKinlay, JB., 1991, The effect of widowhood on health: A prospective analysis from the Massachusetts women's health study, Social Science and Medicine. 33 1063-70

Manor O, and Eisenbach Z. 2003, Mortality after spousal loss: are there socio-demographic differences? Social Science and Medicine. 56 405-13

Manzoli L, Villari, P. Pirone, G. M. & Boccia, A, Marital status and mortality in the elderly: a systematic review and meta-analysis, Social Science & Medicine, 64. 77-94

Mineau, GP, Smith, KR, Bean, LL, 2002 Historical trends of survival among widows and widowers, Social Science and Medicine, 54, 245-254

Pizzetti P. & Manfredini, M, "The shock of widowhood"? evidence from an Italian population (Parma, 1989-2000), Soc Indic Res. 85 499-513

Related Outputs (viewable on CALLS Hub):

Explore the variables held in the SLS data dictionary.

Recent News

Upcoming Events

Events feed unavailable

Latest SLS Tweets