Widowhood can shorten a partner's lifespan

As studies on the widowhood effect indicate, there is a clear causal effect between the death of a spouse and a noticeable spike in the mortality rate of the surviving partner.

Yes, there is such a thing as a broken heart

An undated photo of Petawawa, Ont. couple Muriel and Ed Charette in their younger years. The couple was married for over six decades and died just 32 days apart. (Courtesy of Charette/Deloughery family)

The online series A Good Death is a CBC News co-production with students from the Graduate Program in Journalism at Western. | MORE

Muriel and Edward Charette both passed away in 2002, shortly before their 67th wedding anniversary. (Courtesy of Charette/Deloughery family)

Edward Charette was going to celebrate his 67th wedding anniversary on October 15, 2002 — instead it was the day of his wake.

Muriel Charette, the woman he had married back in 1935 in Petawawa, Ont., had passed away just weeks before, after breaking her hip earlier in the year.

The couple shared a passion for the outdoors, played cards together every weekend, and had raised three daughters. Muriel was the love of Ed’s life.

The day before their anniversary, Ed passed away too. Only 32 days separated Ed’s death from Muriel’s.
Paul Boyle, a geography professor at the University of St. Andrew's in Scotland, says his study found a 40 per cent higher risk of death following widowhood. (Steve Jenkins)

His death was possibly connected to what some doctors call "the widowhood effect," — one death cutting short a surviving spouse’s lifespan.

"It was almost as if the will to live was ebbing from him," said the couple's daughter, Marian Deloughery.  "I firmly believe they celebrated their 67th anniversary together."

Her father’s wake, she said, was held on her parents’ anniversary — a fitting tribute to a couple close in life and united again in death.

As studies on the ‘widowhood effect’ indicate, there is a clear causal effect between the death of a spouse and a noticeable spike in the mortality rate of the surviving partner.

Earlier this year, Paul Boyle, a geography professor at the University of St. Andrew’s, published a longitudinal study of a large sample of the Scottish population — roughly 58,000 men and 58,000 women — that strived to determine the existence of a widowhood effect. Boyle’s team analyzed data about the couples dating back to the early 1990s.

"We did find a significant effect … about a 40 per cent higher risk of death following widowhood than you would otherwise expect," Boyle says. 

While the risk was most evident in the six months following the death of one’s spouse, Boyle says a higher mortality risk for the surviving spouse was evident for a decade after the loss of their partner.

A body of earlier research supports Boyle’s intriguing findings

One study published in 2006 in the New England Journal of Medicine found that, among elderly people, the hospitalization of a spouse was associated with an increased risk of death for the other partner.

Another study published a year later, conducted by University of Glasgow researchers, tracked 4,000 couples and found surviving spouses were at least 30 per cent more likely to die of any cause in the first six months following the death of their partner, versus those who hadn’t lost a spouse. 
Dr. Joshua Shadd, palliative care specialist, London, Ont., says married couples share many of the same environmental influences on their health (Lauren Pelley/Western)

It wasn’t until after his death that Ed Charette 's family learned he had been suffering from multiple myeloma — a hard-to-treat cancer of the plasma cells, a type of blood cell. He’d only been in the hospital 10 days before he died, and doctors hadn’t yet diagnosed his condition.

"Up until then, he hadn’t complained of anything, really," Deloughery recalls. "He was very sad, really saddened by her passing. [We] could see that his life was not the same for him. He was quieter. He was determined to carry on but the same spirit wasn’t there, that energy, that will."

So why is widowhood such a noticeable factor in the death of a surviving spouse? One potential reason is simple: spouses are just so much alike.

"Married couples share many of the same environmental influences on their health," explains Dr. Joshua Shadd, a London, Ontario-based palliative care researcher. "Couples have, generally speaking, a similar dietary history, history of exposure to toxins and carcinogens, similar history of stressers, psycho-social support [and] similar socio-economic level."

But Boyle says his study took these environmental factors into account and the widowhood effect still remained.

"This is a very clear example of a social effect — the fact that you lose your partner — [that has] an impact on your own life expectancy," Boyle says.

Shadd says some grieving spouses may simply have some emotional or psychological control over when they choose to die. "I certainly believe that emotions and psyche have an influence on people’s living and dying process," he adds.

A true broken heart

The mere shock of losing a loved one can also take a toll on the human body — and can even lead to an actual broken heart. 

"Broken heart syndrome’ is a documented medical phenomenon brought on by sudden physical or emotional stress, such as the death of a partner.

While the condition is rarely fatal, it mimics a heart attack and results in severe heart muscle weakness.

Cardiologist Ilan Wittstein, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and its Heart Institute, led a 2005 study on the condition.

Middle-aged and elderly women are most likely to develop broken heart syndrome — or stress cardiomyopathy —according to Wittstein’s research.

"[It’s] a sudden deterioration in the squeezing ability of the heart," he says.

The pain of losing a partner is both physiological and psychological, if this research is any indication.

Boyle says his study on the widowhood effect also highlights important difficulties faced by widowed spouses.

"Widows are a vulnerable group," he explains. "We need to pay attention to people who’ve been left behind and lost their partner."

Since the increased mortality risk continues for ten years, Boyle says the data suggests long-term care strategies for widows and widowers are necessary.

Reflecting on the loss of her parents, Ed and Muriel, within a few weeks of each other, Deloughery understands how hard it must be for a surviving spouse to carry on after losing their lifelong partner.

"You’re so joined — you finish each other’s thoughts, you know their likes, their dislikes — everything," she says. "It’s somebody who totally gets you. You lose that part."

And Deloughery knows from her own experience, too. At 57, she’s now a widow herself, having lost her husband of 27 years, Tom, last autumn.

"So I can only imagine what 67 years was like," she says.