Divorce Undermines Health

Research at the University of Chicago and Johns Hopkins University suggests that, even after a person remarries, the harmful effects of divorce and widowhood linger causing health problems such as heart disease.

“Among the currently married, those who have ever been divorced show worse health on all dimensions. Both the divorced and widowed who do not remarry show worse health on all dimensions,” says University of Chicago sociologist Linda Waite and co-author of a new study on marriage and health.

Other studies have looked at the connection between health and marriage, but this study examines both marital transitions and marital status on a wide range of health dimensions.

“For people in highly stressful marriages, divorce may be beneficial for their health.”

For people in highly stressful marriages, divorce may be beneficial for their health.

People enter adulthood with a particular endowment of health, other research has shown. “Each person’s experience of marital gain and loss affect this stock of health,” Waite said. “For example, the transition to marriage tends to bring an immediate health benefit, in that it improves health behaviors for men and financial well-being for women.” These advantages increase throughout the marriage. Divorce or widowhood undermines health because incomes drop, and stress develops over issues such as shared childcare.

Among their findings, Waite and Mary Elizabeth Hughes, assistant professor at Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health, say:

> “Divorced or widowed people have 20 percent more chronic health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes or cancer than married people. They also have 23 percent more mobility limitations, such as trouble climbing stairs or walking a block.

> “People who never married have 12 percent more mobility limitations and 13 percent more depressive symptoms, but report no difference in the number of chronic health conditions from married people.

> “People who remarried have 12 percent more chronic conditions and 19 percent more mobility limitations, but no more depressive symptoms, than those who are continuously married.”

The impacts of marriage, divorce and remarriage on health are based on the ways in which the various illnesses develop and heal, Waite said.

“Some health situations, like depression, seem to respond both quickly and strongly to changes in current conditions,” she said. “In contrast, conditions such as diabetes and heart disease develop slowly over a substantial period and show the impact of past experiences, which is why health is undermined by divorce or widowhood, even when a person remarries.”

The research was supported with a grant from the National Institute on Aging. Waite, the Lucy Flower Professor in Sociology and Director of the Center on Aging at the National Opinion Research Center at the University, conducted the study with Hughes. Their research was published in the September 2009 issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior in the article, “Marital Biography and Health Midlife,” which was based on a study of 8,652 people aged 51 to 61.

A University of Texas study suggests that divorce increases the likelihoods of heart disease among middle-aged women

The study by Austin researcher Dr Mark Hayward suggests that divorced, middle-aged women — even when they remarried — are more likely to develop heart disease than non-divorced, married women.

Dr. Hayward, who directs the university’s Population Research Center, says that long-term stress before, during, and after a divorce may accelerate the biologic processes that lead to cardiovascular disease and possibly other chronic diseases. “Even when the stress goes away, this acceleration may continue as if the body has been reprogrammed,” he says.

A divorce is always worse for your health than staying married, he says. “This study suggests that, on average, that is the case, but clearly it is not true for everyone,” he says. “For people in highly stressful marriages, divorce may be beneficial for their health.”

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