How Losing a Spouse Affects Your Health

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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The death of a spouse can certainly bring on sadness and loneliness, but recent studies show losing a partner can also have a serious impact on your physical health. Grief comes in a variety of forms ranging from normal grief to complicated grief. Normal bereavement typically takes 6 months to 2 years to process and may not need formal treatment. Complicated grief can last much longer, includes three distinct phases, and usually requires group and individual therapy to work through.

While both forms can take a toll on your health, there are several practices that can help you or your friends and family work through the grieving process in a healthy way. Let’s start by looking at how losing a spouse can create health challenges.

Health Issues Triggered by Grief

Grief of any kind alters your habits, causes some level of depression, and leads to physical changes in your body. Watch for these health problems if you’ve lost your spouse or want to provide support for someone who is grieving.

  • Insomnia and exhaustion: Constant memories, changes in routine, and anxiety following the death of a spouse can lead to sleepless nights and exhaustion. Not getting enough sleep compromises your immune system and makes you more prone to catching colds. It can also make you irritable and depressed. This is a normal response, and temporary use of sleeping medication may help as you process your grief and adjust to life changes.

  • Decreased or increased appetite: Most people experience appetite loss during the beginning of bereavement. This can lead to weight loss and poor nutrition. Over time, the appetite and extra weight returns. Eating a healthy diet and exercising should be a priority as you grieve. Plus, focusing on wellness and moving your body can help relieve stress and boost your mood.

  • Infection and immune system issues: Scientists have discovered that the emotional stress of losing a spouse actually suppresses parts of your immune system and can leave you vulnerable to infection. This type of stress and depression increases cortisol levels, which interferes with the functioning of white blood cells called neutrophils that fight bacterial infections like pneumonia. As we age, we lose the ability to produce hormones that combat this effect, so immune system vulnerability is an even greater worry when older people lose a spouse.

  • Heart palpitations and cardiovascular issues: Panic attacks and stress following the death of a spouse are common. Keep an eye on heart health during the grieving process. Research has linked grieving and heart disease, with the mortality rate from cardiovascular disease increasing 10% for widowers and 7% for widows.

  • Depression and memory problems: Some level of loneliness, sadness or depression is normal. Nearly a quarter of widows and widowers will experience clinical depression during the first year of bereavement. The real concern is if the depression continues for several years. One study showed that caregivers who lost a spouse to dementia often suffered from depression up to three years after their spouse’s death. Depression caused by grieving can also lead to memory problems, especially in older adults. Getting help for depression early on in the grieving process can ward off a number of other health issues.

Tips for Staying Healthy While You Grieve

If you are proactive, you can help improve the grieving process for yourself or a loved one after the loss of a spouse. Creating a new routine can get you on the path of healing, and wellness practices will boost your mood and your health.  

  • Eat well and often: Because appetite is often affected, it’s essential you eat regularly even if you don’t feel like it. If sitting down to a meal is too much, schedule a small snack every 2 to 3 hours. Make sure you drink lots of water to stay hydrated. Eat nutritious foods or take vitamins to keep your immune system hearty while you work through your stress and grief.

  • Exercise: Depression can make moving seem impossible, but a leisurely walk will increase blood flow to your brain and improve your mood. Exercise is great for reducing stress, anxiety and depression. If your energy is low, try a relaxing activity like yoga or meditation, both of which do wonders for your brain health and overall wellness.

  • Sleep as much as you can: Not getting enough sleep causes increases in cortisol levels, leads to depression, and makes you irritable. Do what you can to get seven hours of sleep a night. Talk to you doctor about using sleep medications temporarily. Take naps during the day if you need to. Do whatever it takes to get enough rest so you don’t wind up exhausted.

  • Take grieving at your own pace: Bereavement is different for everyone, so don’t let anyone pressure you to get over your loss too quickly or make you feel bad if your mood improves before they expect it to. Some widows and widowers recommend scheduling special times of the day to focus on memories of your spouse. This can help keep sad thoughts from distracting your mind when you need to be productive, like at work. But don’t do this before bedtime because it can keep you awake. Journaling many also help you process your grief at your own speed.

  • Be clear about what you need: Communicate clearly with your friends and family and let them know exactly what you need. It might be an exercise buddy, a reminder to drink more water, a shopping trip to the farmer’s market, or to simply be left alone for a day. Your support team can’t help you if they don’t know what you need most during your unique grieving time.  

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Sep 7
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.

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  3. Former Caregivers Still Show Psychological Ills Years After Caregiving Ends. Ohio State University Research News. https://researchnews.osu.edu/archive/formcare.htm 

  4. Does widowhood affect memory performance of older persons? US National Library of Science. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15841679 

  5. Coping with loss: Bereavement in adult life. US National Library of Science. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1112778/