Background. The loss of a spouse has been found to have a negative effect on physical and mental health and leads to increased mortality. Whether conjugal bereavement also affects memory functioning has largely been unexamined. The present study investigates the effect of widowhood on memory functioning in older persons.
Method. The sample consisted of 474 married women and 690 married men aged 60–85 years in 1992, followed up in 1995 and 1998. During the study 135 (28%) of the women and 69 (10%) of the men lost their spouse. Linear regression analysis was used to examine whether widowed men and women differed from those who had not been widowed in rate of memory change over 6 years. Cross-domain latent-change models were subsequently used to evaluate the extent to which changes in memory are related to changes in other domains of functioning that may be affected by widowhood.
Results. Older adults who lost a spouse during follow-up showed a greater decline in memory over 6 years than those who remained married. A higher level of depressive symptoms at baseline was related to lower levels of memory functioning and a greater decline. Memory decline was unrelated to changes in depressive symptoms and physical health.
Conclusions. Loss of the spouse is related to a greater decline in memory in older adults. The absence of an association with physical functioning and the weak association with mental functioning suggest that losing a spouse has an independent effect on memory functioning.