Death of a spouse is often considered as an acute stressor that leads to health problems, such as the onset of stress-induced heart diseases or psychological problems. Until now, research on bereavement has often focused either on physical or psychological outcomes, not both. We contribute to filling in this research gap, paying particular attention to the broken heart syndrome which combines physical and mental reactions to a stressful life event. Based on vulnerability-stress model and life course theory, we first aim to identify profiles of widow(er)s in terms of heart-related psychophysical reactions before and after spousal death. Second, we analyze movement patterns of adaptation to bereavement over time. Third, we explore differences in individuals’ preconditions among the identified subgroups. Using six waves of SHARE data, we analyze a sample of widow(er)s aged 50 and above with regard to heart-related physical and psychological conditions (depressive mood, heart conditions, hypertension, heart-related medication), pre-loss marital and familial indicators, and socio-demographic characteristics before and after widowhood. We arrived at a preliminary 3-profile parsimonious solution with well-adapted healthy individuals, well-adapted hypertensive individuals and affected individuals at risk for depression and heart-related conditions. Having social support seems to reduce the risk of experiencing broken heart syndrome. Poor financial situation and expectedness of spousal death are main risk factors for membership in the affected group. Our study confirms that there is a great variability in adaptation to late-life widowhood regarding psychophysical health outcomes.
This project has been developed during the Swiss NCCR LIVES Winter School on Life Course. Results have been presented at several national and international conferences, the manuscript will be submitted to a journal end of 2017.
Co-authors of this project are Katharina Loter (Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg), Hyo Jung Lee (University of South Florida, USA), and Pasqualina Perrig-Chiello (University of Bern, Switzerland).