Becoming a widow can improve a woman’s health

The death of a partner can improve a woman’s health, according to research at the University of Padova in Italy.

The study, of 733 men and 1,154 women, found ‘gender specific differences’ in the way marital status affects health. Widows are about 23 per cent less likely to be frail than married women, according to the report in the Journal of Women’s Health.

This is due to the fact that women generally live longer, and are more likely to take on the responsibility of looking after their spouse in old age — and therefore more likely to experience stress and depression towards the end of their lives.

The same study also found that single women have greater job satisfaction, higher physical activity levels and a lower risk of social isolation, as they are better at maintaining relationships than men.

The study volunteers’ frailty was assessed by measuring handgrip strength, balance and walking speed. Interviews aimed to control for levels of physical activity, education, monthly income, and other health factors such as tobacco and alcohol consumption.

Older married women are ‘more likely to feel stressed and find their role restrictive and frustrating’, according to the study’s lead author, Dr Caterina Trevisan.

‘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.’

Instant analysis
At first glance, it would seem that, for women, the state of marriage confers an increased risk of frailty compared to those who are widowed. For men, on the other hand, marriage appears to confer relative protection from frailty; for widowed men the reported increase in frailty compared to their married counterparts does, however, seem statistically less significant.

Single women reportedly experienced less discomfort than bachelors, greater job satisfaction and a lower risk of social isolation, as they maintained stronger relationships with family or friends. Reading this study, one would wonder why single women would bother to get married at all. Thankfully, marriage is still a matter of the heart rather than of the head. It seems difficult to generalise from the findings in the authors’ study group of mainly older, mostly Caucasian people living in northern Italy. The authors do not touch on the issue of civil partnerships or of same-sex marriage — clearly more work needs to be done as social norms change.
CH
Research score: 3/5