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Stroke Health Center

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Children of Divorce Face Higher Stroke Risk

As Adults, Kids Whose Parents Divorce Have Twofold Higher Stroke Risk
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Nov. 22, 2010 -- Children whose parents divorced grow up to have twice the stroke risk of adults whose parents stayed together, a Canadian study finds.

The association between childhood experience of parental divorce and stroke cannot be explained by other factors linked to stroke risk: education, household income, obesity, smoking status, alcohol use, inactivity, mental health, or adverse childhood experiences such as abuse.

So what's the explanation? That's what University of Toronto gerontologist Esme Fuller-Thompson, PhD, and colleagues would like to know.

"We can only say there is an association between parental divorce and adult stroke, and that a lot of the pathways we considered key mediators of stroke are not correct," Fuller-Thompson tells WebMD. "Neither health behaviors nor depression nor adult socioeconomic status can explain the stroke risk we saw."

The Canadian researchers took advantage of data from the 2005 Canadian Community Health Survey of more than 13,000 residents of the provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

Fuller-Thompson's team was investigating the link between childhood physical abuse and health outcomes. They included parental divorce as one of the childhood stresses they wanted to evaluate. Indeed, they found that divorce was more common in families in which there was abuse.

"When we looked at adult risk of stroke, we found the association was not with abuse but parental divorce during childhood," Fuller-Thompson says. "We guessed, this association would go away if we controlled for healthy behavior -- there is some evidence that children of divorced parents are more likely to smoke and to drink."

Instead of making the association go away, controlling for health behavior and other factors only strengthened the link between childhood experience of divorce and adult stroke.

Despite the increased risk, the vast majority of adults whose parents divorced did not have strokes.

"Let's make sure we don’t have mass panic by telling people that every mother who divorces gives her child a stroke," Fuller-Thompson says. "We don't know divorce causes stroke, we just know this association exists. It could be a lot of things."

One theory is that exposure to stress during childhood may change the physiology of how a person responds to stress in adulthood. That remains to be explored.

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