September 14, 2003

First Year of Widowhood Most Harmful to Mental Health, According to a Sample of Over 70,000 Middle Aged Women

Resilience of older women and capacity to reestablish connections can diminish the effects of the loss over time

WASHINGTON - From one of the largest prospective and cross-sectional studies conducted on the health of middle-age women, researchers find that first year widows have a substantial drop in their mental health but do bounce back after a period of time, according to a new study appearing in the September issue of Health Psychology, a journal published by the American Psychological Association (APA).

Women widowed less than a year reported more mental and physical problems than women who were married and women who had been widowed for longer than a year, according to the findings. But the recently widowed women did improve over time and finding social support may be important in the coping process, according to lead researcher Sara Wilcox, Ph.D., of the University of South Carolina and coauthors. The authors examined 72,247 women aged 50-79 years of age who were either married, recently widowed (lost husband in past year), or widowed more than a year. They also followed 55,724 women over a three-year period to examine changes over time.

The sample was part of the Women's Health Initiative Observational Study that investigated the causes of morbidity and mortality in postmenopausal women. This study was conducted to determine the affect of losing one's spouse in midlife on physical health (body weight, blood pressure, physical functioning and pain), mental health (social functioning and mood) and health behaviors (smoking, exercise level, intake of fruit, vegetables and fat and alcohol consumption). The women were followed up three years later.

According to the authors, at baseline marriage was associated with a more favorable health profile than widowhood, and women who were recent widows (widowed in the past year) reported substantially higher rates of depressed mood, poorer social functioning, and lower mental health and physical functioning than the women who were widowed more than a year. Becoming a widow, said Dr. Wilcox, is an acute negative experience and does lower a person's mental health, but this transition was not associated with physical health or health behaviors, with exception of unintentional weight loss.

But as time passed, the women's mental health improved, said the authors. The women who became widowed more than one year before the three year follow up reported improved moods and better social functioning. It may be that those women with improved mental health measures experienced less stress from not having to care for an ill spouse or found professional or personal support and learned some positive coping strategies, said Wilcox.

"After a three-year period of time passed, emotional and social functioning improved among most of the widowed women," said the authors. "These findings underscore the resilience of older women and their capacity to reestablish connections, but point to the need for services that strengthen social support among women who have difficulty during this transition."


Article: "The Effects of Widowhood on Physical and Mental Health, Health Behaviors, and Health Outcomes: The Women's Health Initiative," Sara Wilcox, Ph.D., University of South Carolina; Kelly R. Evenson, Ph.D., University of North Carolina; Aaron Aragaki, M.S., Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center; Sylvia Wassertheil-Smoller, Ph.D., Albert Einstein College of Medicine; Charles P. Mouton, M.D., University of Texas Health Science Center; Barbara Lee Loevinger, M.D., University of Wisconsin Medical School; Health Psychology, Vol. 22, No. 5.

Reporters: Sara Wilcox, PhD can be reached by phone at (803) 777-8141 or by Email

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 150,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 53 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting health, education and human welfare.