Wives and ex-wives: A new test for homogamy bias in the widowhood effect

Abstract

Increased mortality following the death of a spouse (the “widowhood effect”) may be due to (1) causation, (2) bias from spousal similarity (homogamy), or (3) bias from shared environmental exposures. This article proposes new tests for bias in the widowhood effect by examining husbands, wives, and ex-wives in a longitudinal sample of over 1 million elderly Americans. If the death of an ex-wife has no causal effect on the mortality of her husband, then an observed association between the mortality of an ex-wife and her husband may indicate bias, while the absence of an effect of an ex-wife’s death on her husband’s mortality would discount the possibility of homogamy bias (and also of one type of shared-exposure bias). Results from three empirical tests provide strong evidence for an effect of a current wife’s death on her husband’s mortality yet no statistically signifi cant evidence for an effect of an ex-wife’s death on her husband’s mortality. These results strengthen the causal interpretation of the widowhood effect by suggesting that the widowhood effect is not due to homogamy bias to any substantial degree.

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Correspondence to Felix Elwert.

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This research was supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health to N.A. Christakis (R-01 AG17548-01). Previous versions of this article were presented at Yale and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The authors thank Laurie Meneades for the expert data programming required to develop the analytic data set, and Christopher Winship, Peter A. DeWan, Matthew Desmond, Zhen Zeng, and Joseph Altonji for helpful discussions.

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Elwert, F., Christakis, N.A. Wives and ex-wives: A new test for homogamy bias in the widowhood effect. Demography 45, 851–873 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1353/dem.0.0029

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Keywords

  • Causal Interpretation
  • Shared Exposure
  • Unobserved Dimension
  • Spousal Similarity
  • Marital Dyad