Divorce has lasting health consequences, study says

28 JUL 2009

Divorced or widowed people suffer 20 percent more long-term health problems including diabetes, heart disease and cancer, than those continuously married, according to a new study.

The study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behaviour reveals that even those who remarry suffer 12 percent more of these conditions.

People who have never married are disadvantaged on some measures of health compared to the divorced or widowed, but do better on others, the researchers found.

"We argue that losing a marriage through divorce or widowhood is extremely stressful and that a high-stress period takes a toll on health," study co-author Linda Waite said. "Think of health as money in the bank. Think of a marriage as a mechanism for 'saving' or adding to health. Think of divorce as a period of very high expenditures."

Waite is the Lucy Flower Professor of Sociology and director of the Center on Aging at the University of Chicago.

The study looked at four key aspects of midlife health: chronic conditions, mobility limitations, self-rated health and depressive symptoms. Researchers found that a significant disruption in marital stability, such as divorce or spousal death, often has a prolonged impact, negatively affecting all four areas.

The researchers drew data from the US Health and Retirement Study, a nationally representative, longitudinal study that looked at individuals age 50 and above. They analyzed data from 8,652 white, black and Hispanic people between the ages of 51 and 61.

Those who never married fared better than did currently married individuals with a history of divorce or spousal loss. While the researchers did not find a difference in the number of chronic conditions compared to those who were currently married, they did find significantly more depressive symptoms and mobility limitations and significantly worse self-rated health than they did in married individuals.

However, the authors caution that it may be that those who were less healthy were also more likely to get a divorce and less likely to remarry.

"The thing to keep in mind is that your marital status affects the chances of chronic conditions but doesn't make them a certainty," said Waite. "Anything you can do to mitigate the effects of stress should help. In the midst of a divorce or being widowed, you need to remember to take care of yourself."

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