Weight Loss Among Widows More Harmful to Health than Post-Wedding Weight Gain, Research Shows

Aug. 7, 2009

AUSTIN, Texas — The death of a spouse has a much more profound effect on weight change than marital status, according to new research by sociologists at The University of Texas at Austin.

The researchers have detailed their study "Marital Status, Marital Transitions and Body Weight" in the June issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior. The lead researcher, Debra Umberson, professor of sociology, will be a presenter at the American Sociological Association Annual Meeting in San Francisco, Aug. 8-9.

Umberson and her team of researchers, Daniel Powers, associate professor of sociology at the university; and Hui Liu, assistant professor of sociology at Michigan State University, analyzed data from a national survey, in which they tracked weight trajectories among 1,500 adults over a 15-year period. They found that while the transition into marriage is associated with temporary weight gain, weight loss affected by divorce or widowhood is the most detrimental.

According to the study, the biggest cause for concern is the long-term weight loss following widowhood, especially among African Americans. Those who lose as little as 10 pounds are at an increased risk for mortality.

"This is a big concern for population health as significant weight loss increases mortality risk—especially among the elderly," Umberson said. "We were especially concerned to see that weight loss following widowhood is significantly greater for African Americans than for whites."

Umberson suggests that weight loss following widowhood reflects grief-related stress, as well as significant lifestyle changes. Because married people routinely divide cooking and grocery shopping chores, a partner helps to prepare food and provides more social motivation for eating meals. And when widowed men and women fall out of that routine, they tend to lose interest in eating.

"Given that even modest weight loss increases mortality risks, the newly widowed need to be aware they are at risk when they begin to lose weight," Umberson said. "But this is a lot to ask of bereaved persons, so most of my advice is for family members and helping professionals who can make sure widowed men and women have access to food and provide opportunities for them to sit down and eat their meals with others."

For more information, contact: Jessica Sinn, College of Liberal Arts, 512-471-2404; Debra Umberson, Professor, Department of Sociology, 512-232-6330.

10 Comments to "Weight Loss Among Widows More Harmful to Health than Post-Wedding Weight Gain, Research Shows"

1.  r renner said on Aug. 13, 2009

Not my theory. Husbands get fattened up and then the wife dies, or vice versa. As they reported, eating is heavily (no pun intended) social, as is marriage.

2.  Bob Lommel said on Aug. 13, 2009

The short report above mostly refers to widows. Are the results the same for widowers and widows alike, or did the study tend to study women because there are more of them?

3.  Connie Moore-Johnson said on Aug. 13, 2009

Your study is accurate, but it doesn't take into consideration that the benefit of a healthier lifestyle with strength training exercises would also produce a weight loss. In my marriage of nine and a half years I gained more than 15 pounds. Having been a widow for seven years, I have lost all 15 pounds and gained muscle and improved balance. Not to mention a better attitude about aging.

4.  Donna pino said on Aug. 13, 2009

I've lost 20 pounds since my husband's death in March, but I was overweight by about 30 pounds. Wouldn't my weight loss be good for my health?

5.  Charles W. Isbell said on Aug. 13, 2009

Both of my paternal grandparents, and their son, my late father, were very "slim and trim" all their lives. When granddad died, grandmother seemed to remain very slim. When my mother died, my dad was slender, but did become a little "slenderer," but not much. C.W.I.

6.  Rudy Mueller said on Aug. 14, 2009

Since many of us could well afford to lose some pounds, does this study imply that weight loss is inherently associated with higher mortality rates? Or does that depend on whether we initially were overweight, normal or underweight? Was this studied?

7.  Denise said on Aug. 16, 2009

Very interesting study. Good work!

8.  Cindy Walker said on Aug. 17, 2009

Regarding Donna Pino's comment: Yes, if the widow was overweight before the husband's death, of course, weight loss would be beneficial. The study should have stated the weight status of the widow. I believe the more crucial issue is the speed of the weight loss and whether serious nutritional deficits are incurred. An intentional weight loss of two to three pounds per week is generally recognized as safe.

9.  Idalia Villarreal said on Aug. 24, 2009

Could it be possible that the weight loss may be due to some sort of chemical imbalance within the body? I lost my 18-year-old son about four years ago, and I lost about 15 pounds in about a month. It wasn't for lack of eating because there was always someone around me especially at meal times and that was always their concern.

10.  J. Weight said on Aug. 31, 2009

The reason is simply that cleansing the colon provides your body with so many health benefits that it is important to do it no matter what the effects are for weight loss efforts. If you experience a loss in body fat from doing it, great.