GeroScience, 2024

Spousal bereavement and its effects on later life physical and cognitive capability: the Tromsø study

Spousal bereavement is associated with health declines and increased mortality risk, but its specific impact on physical and cognitive capabilities is less studied. A historical cohort study design was applied including married Tromsø study participants (N=5739) aged 50-70 years with baseline self-reported overall health and health-related factors and measured capability (grip strength, finger tapping, digit symbol coding, and short-term recall) at follow-up. Participants had data from Tromsø4 (1994-1995) and Tromsø5 (2001), or Tromsø6 (2007-2008) and Tromsø7 (2015-2016). Propensity score matching, adjusted for baseline confounders (and baseline capability in a subset), was used to investigate whether spousal bereavement was associated with poorer subsequent capability. Spousal bereavement occurred for 6.2% on average 3.7 years (SD 2.0) before the capability assessment. There were no significant bereavement effects on subsequent grip strength, immediate recall, or finger-tapping speed. Without adjustment for baseline digit symbol coding test performance, there was a negative significant effect on the digit symbol coding test (ATT -1.33; 95% confidence interval -2.57, -0.10), but when baseline digit symbol coding test performance was taken into account in a smaller subsample, using the same set of matching confounders, there was no longer any association (in the subsample ATT changed from -1.29 (95% CI -3.38, 0.80) to -0.04 (95% CI -1.83, 1.75). The results in our study suggest that spousal bereavement does not have long-term effects on the intrinsic capacity components physical or cognition capability to a notable degree.


Bjørn Heine Strand, Asta K Håberg, Harpa Sif Eyjólfsdóttir, Almar Kok, Vegard Skirbekk, Oliver Huxhold, Gøril Kvamme Løset, Carin Lennartsson, Henrik Schirmer, Katharina Herlofson, Marijke Veenstra

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