Study of 410,272 elderly American couples shows little
"widowhood effect" among blacks
Washington, DC—White Americans are far more likely than their black
counterparts to die soon after the death of a spouse, according to the latest
sociological research. The longitudinal study of 410,272 elderly American
couples indicates that the “widowhood effect”—the increased probability of death
among new widows and widowers—is large and enduring among white couples but
undetectable among black couples, suggesting that blacks may somehow manage to
extend marriage’s well-documented health benefits into widowhood.
The research results by Harvard sociologists Felix Elwert and Nicholas A.
Christakis appear in the February issue of American Sociological Review,
published by the American Sociological Association.
“The health effects of a spouse’s death differ radically between blacks and
whites,” says Elwert, a doctoral student in sociology. “We found strong evidence
of the widowhood effect among white couples: Men were 18 percent more likely to
die shortly after their wives’ deaths, and women were 16 percent more likely to
die shortly after their husbands’ deaths. By contrast, the estimated effect of a
black spouse’s death on the mortality of his or her surviving spouse is
Upon marrying, blacks and whites appear to receive the same health
benefits, which previous research has attributed to factors such as emotional
support, economic well-being, caretaking when ill, enhanced social support and
kinship, and the promoting of healthy behaviors and discouraging of risk-taking.
Elwert and Christakis suggest such benefits may be longer-lasting for blacks,
persisting even after a spouse’s death.
Citing prior research, the investigators identify several possible reasons
for this enduring marriage benefit among blacks. Almost twice as likely to live
with relatives and far more active in religious organizations, elderly blacks
tend to have stronger and more extensive social networks than elderly whites.
Black couples are also less likely than whites to adhere to a rigidly gendered
division of labor, which may reduce mutual dependence.
“Current policy debates on the benefits of marriage, and efforts to promote
marriage, tend to assume that marriage exerts a uniform effect on everybody,”
says Christakis, professor of sociology in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and
Sciences, professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School, and an
attending physician at Massachusetts General Hospital. “Given that widowhood
appears more harmful in some groups than others, our results call into question
the ‘one-size-fits-all’ perspective on marital relations.”
Elwert and Christakis’ study, which followed Americans age 67 or older from
1993 to 2002, included 4,414 interracial couples, the largest such population
ever analyzed. Among these couples, they found that the wife’s race drives the
widowhood effect: Couples with a white husband and a black wife experience a
much lower widowhood effect than couples with a black husband and a white wife,
a finding that may reflect wives’ more active role in shaping a couple’s social
Elwert and Christakis also found no support for the widespread view that
widowhood is more harmful to husbands’ health than it is to wives’ health.
During the first month of bereavement, the risk of death increases 62 percent
for women and 52 percent for men, declining sharply until the third month of
widowhood for women and the sixth month for men. Between genders, the risk of
death then continues to fall until the second year of bereavement, from which
point it remains steady and elevated relative to married individuals.
For a PDF copy of the article ASR
article, “Widowhood and Race,”
contact Johanna Olexy at the American Sociological Association at (202) 247-9871
. The entire
February issue will be available in early March.
Elwert and Christakis’ research was supported by the National Institute on
Aging at the National Institutes of Health.
About the American Sociological Association
The American Sociological Review
is the flagship journal of the
American Sociological Association (ASA). Jerry A. Jacobs (University of
Pennsylvania) is editor of the American Sociological Review
The American Sociological Association (www.asanet.org),
founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to
serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science
and profession, and promoting the contributions to and use of sociology by society.