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George C. Alter photo

Widowhood, Family Size, and Post-Reproductive Mortality: A Comparative Analysis of Three Populations in Nineteenth Century Europe

Publication Abstract

Alter, George C., Martin Dribe, and Frans van Poppel. 2007. "Widowhood, Family Size, and Post-Reproductive Mortality: A Comparative Analysis of Three Populations in Nineteenth Century Europe." Demography, 44(4): 785-806.

Researchers from a number of disciplines have offered competing theories about the effects of childbearing on parents' postreproductive longevity. The "disposable soma theory" argues that investments in somatic maintenance increase longevity but reduce childbearing. "Maternal depletion" models suggest that the rigors of childrearing increase mortality in later years. Other researchers consider continued childbearing a sign of healthy aging and a predictor of future longevity. Empirical studies have produced inconsistent and contradictory results. Our focus is on the experience of widowhood, which has been ignored in previous studies. We hypothesize that the death of a spouse is a stressful event with long-term consequences for health, especially for women with small children. Data are drawn from historical sources in Sweden, Belgium, and the Netherlands from 1766 to 1980. Postreproductive mortality was highest among young widows with larger families in all three samples. Age at last birth had little or no effect. We conclude that raising children under adverse circumstances can have long-lasting, harmful effects on a mother health.

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