By Vishwadha Chander

Among older widows, wives of military veterans are less likely to say they feel lonely and more likely to report having strong social support, a small U.S. study suggests.

Researchers analyzed survey data from more than 400 older women, about two-thirds of whom had been married to men who had ever served in the U.S. military. The study team found that having supportive friendships before and after the death of their husbands seemed to explain lower rates of loneliness in the military widows.

“Our study suggests widows of veterans do not experience the same emotional health consequences of spousal loss as widows of nonveterans,” study leader Brittany M. King, a sociology doctoral candidate at Florida State University, in Tallahassee, told Reuters Health by email.

Previous research has found evidence that military service has a lasting impact on social support and health well into later life, King said.

“As our lives are profoundly influenced by our significant other, their experiences and resources, we were interested in assessing if spouses of older veterans were seeing similar lasting impacts of military service even though they never served.”

King and her colleagues analyzed responses to a long-running, nationally-representative survey of U.S. adults over age 50 between 2004 and 2016. A total of 428 women, ages 61 to 90, who were married to men during the first wave of surveys and who had been widowed by the second wave, were included in the analysis. Among them, 284 were married to military veterans and 144 were not.

Most of the women were non-Hispanic white. They had been married for up to 66 years, according to the report in the Journals of Gerontology: Series B.

To assess social networks and “perceived social support,” the researchers looked at women’s responses to questions about friendships and other sources of emotional support. To gauge loneliness, they assessed responses to questions about how often a participant felt “left out,” isolated or “lacking companionship.”

“Perceived social support from friends can be understood as the support we believe our friends will provide if we needed it,” King noted.

Prior to being widowed, wives of veterans and non-veterans reported similar levels of perceived social support.

But while veterans’ wives retained the same level of perceived social support from friends after being widowed, the surviving spouses of non-veterans tended to have less perceived social support, and that appeared to explain the disparity in reported loneliness.

The authors speculate that the military, as an institution, brings individuals together and cultivates lifelong bonds. It also gives families access to resources that help them with their physical and mental health.

The older veterans studied are unique, the authors note, because of the time they were involved in the military and the wars they may have participated in.

“Current military personnel may have different kinds of structures that influence cultivation of meaningful friendships,” King said.

Dr. Nancy J. Donovan, director of geriatric psychiatry at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, said it was likely that most of the veterans in the current study served only briefly.

“The findings reported may or may not pertain to families with longstanding military careers,” Donovan, who was not involved in the current study, told Reuters Health in an email.

She said it was important to replicate this research using widows whose husbands’ military service was better characterized.

King believes her study is the start of a body of research needed to better understand unintended benefits of being exposed to the military, and hopes its findings will help older adults realize the importance of building and maintaining meaningful friendships.