With a life expectancy of 85.2 years, Italian women are expected to live, on average, five years longer than Italian men. This inevitably makes for a lot of widows: As of 2015, there were 3,782,095 widows in Italy (6.1% of the population, link in Italian), versus 741,760 widowers.
This does not mean older Italian women are condemned to a bleak life of loneliness and sadness—quite the contrary. As the study titled “Marital Status and Frailty in Older People” published in the Journal of Women’s Health found, Italian widows over 65 do pretty well—better than widowers their age, and also better than married women their age.
The study, led by Caterina Trevisan, a medical doctor researching in the geriatric division of Padua University’s school of medicine, looked at 1245 men and 1854 women over 65 enrolled in a project for the elderly of Italy’s Veneto region. None of them had signs of frailty syndrome, a condition diagnosed in the elderly on the basis of five main parameters—weight loss, exhaustion, slowness, low activity level, and weakness—and which can be read as a proxy for general well-being. In other words, they were all in pretty good shape, physically at least.
These relatively robust subjects were divided on the basis of their marital status, and observed for more than four years. The 1887 people who remained alive and whose marital status didn’t change were tested for onset of frailty. Widowers demonstrated a much higher risk of frailty compared to married men—while for women, the opposite was true. Women who lost a spouse, after an initial period of grief, showed a lower risk of frailty compared to married women—and an overall lower risk of frailty compared to men of any marital status.
Trevisan said in an interview that women tend to retain a higher degree of independence as they age. Left alone, women can take care of themselves better than men, especially when it comes to people who were over 65 in 1995. “While women held a secondary role in society,” Trevisan explained, “they were in charge of managing the family’s social interactions.” Their practice managing the family’s social life made them less likely to be isolated after grieving for their deceased husbands.
Moreover, women who remained married and got older, “often have an assistance role towards their husbands,” Trevisan said. This can be wearing. Losing their husbands relieves them “from the burden of assistance,” which puts them in better condition than their married peers, she said.