Frailty risk lower in widowed than married older women

Among older women, those who are widowed have a lower risk of becoming frail than their married counterparts.

It is known that marriage is a beneficial factor among couples and is linked to lower risk of heart attacks, better mental health and sleep, among others; but a new study has revealed a surprising exception to this view. It found that among older women, those who are widowed have a lower risk of becoming frail than their married counterparts. The researchers were surprised to find that among the older women in the group, it was the widowed women who had the lowest risk of developing frailty, compared with their married counterparts.

However, among men, it is the other way around: married older men appear to have a lower risk of frailty than their unmarried or widowed peers.

Using the data gathered among 1,887 women and men aged 65 and above who had been tracked down for four years, the researchers categorized each participant as frail if they met a minimum of three out of the five criteria.

The five criteria or "Fried criteria" include weight loss recorded from the previous 12 months, physical activity, measure of exhaustion, hand grip strength and the ability to walk in a short distance.

In discussing the results, the researchers make a number of points, of which two stand out as being of interest. First, they note that the married men in their sample were more likely to be smokers and drinkers and have chronic diseases like diabetes, COPD, cancer. They were also more likely to be less well educated than unmarried men. The authors write:

"This picture would appear to disagree with the theory according to which healthier people with a better psychological and socioeconomic status would be more likely to be selected for marriage."

The second interesting point the authors make is that the participants lived much of their early adult life in the mid-20th century, a social context where housekeeping, food shopping and food preparation were almost always done by women.

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.

The researchers acknowledged that their study has several weaknesses, among which they note, the social context of the population they studied compared with the continuous changes the structure of society, means the results may not reflect the current situation, "particularly considering the very small number of divorcees and unmarried people in our sample".

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