STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's test the truth behind a common saying. It's a comforting statement people make about a husband or wife when the spouse dies after a long illness. You know, the husband had Alzheimer's or cancer for years. He dies. And that's when people apply the phrase. They say, after all that suffering it must be a relief for her. Sorry to say that new research suggests so often is not a relief. And NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam is here to tell us about it. Hi, Shankar.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: So what's happening at the end of someone's life like that?
VEDANTAM: Well, it might be a relief but there might also be long-term negative consequences, Steve. Let me set the context for you. Researchers have long known about a phenomenon that's called the widowhood effect. This is a phenomenon where one person passes away and it has a big effect on the other partner. Both men and women experience a higher risk of dying after a spouse dies compared to men and women who are in intact, continuing relationships.
INSKEEP: Meaning they were healthy before but they suddenly go downhill. They become depressed. They die. They have very poor quality of life - OK.
VEDANTAM: Exactly. I was speaking with Mary-Frances O'Connor at the University of Arizona. She studies grief and what happens to people as they grieve. And recently, along with her colleagues Kyle Bourassa, Lindsey Knowles and David Sbarra, they conducted a study into the widowhood effect but looking not at mortality but looking at quality of life. So they track a large number of couples over time. They identified more than 500 couples where one partner dies. And they examined the quality of life of the surviving man or woman over the following one to two years. And what she finds is that the dead partner continues to affect the living partner well after he or she has passed away. Here is O'Connor.
MARY-FRANCES O'CONNOR: When we live with someone for a long time, when we get to know them very deeply and very well, they become a part of us. They become a part of our mind. We have a representation of them that we carry around. And even when they are not there, we still have a representation of how we think they would react in a given situation. Well, this part, the part we carry around with us, persists even after the person is gone.
VEDANTAM: I should also say, Steve, that while this study was focused on heterosexual couples, O'Connor told me there was no reason to think we wouldn't see the same effect among gay couples.
INSKEEP: Well, let me make sure that I understand what you're saying here. You're saying that if the partner was ill for a long time before dying it's almost as if that very ill partner is still with the living spouse for a long time afterward?
VEDANTAM: That's exactly what the research is finding. So if the person, for example, lived a long and happy and contented life, O'Connor and her colleagues find that this increases the quality of life of the partner who survives. Unfortunately, as you are pointing out in your scenario, the reverse is also true. Here is O'Connor again.
O'CONNOR: If the person had a very poor quality of life, that may continue to haunt us after the death. As we continue to think back on situations that were difficult for them, that may also continue to affect us.
INSKEEP: Well, how do the researchers measure this worse quality of life? By which I mean what actually is happening to the people that they studied on a day-to-day basis?
VEDANTAM: They're looking at a number of different measures, Steve. They're looking at how much the person has feelings of control, of autonomy, self-realization, pleasure, how much the person looks forward to each day. So you're measuring in many ways what the quality of life is of the surviving partner.
INSKEEP: OK, so the person being studied is actually reporting, I feel depressed today, I feel awful today. What can we do about this if we're trying to look after someone in a situation like that?
VEDANTAM: I mean, I think one implication of this work is that by providing better care to people with terminal illness, you not only help them but you might actually have a long-term effect on the surviving partner because the effect of the person with the terminal illness is likely to stay with the surviving partner long after the person has passed away.
INSKEEP: Shankar, thanks.
VEDANTAM: Thanks, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Shankar Vedantam who is our social science correspondent and also hosts the podcast Hidden Brain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.