July 28, 2009 -- Divorce and the death of a spouse frequently have long-term negative consequences for health, even in people who remarry, new research shows.
It is clear that a recent divorce or widowhood is associated with an increase in poor health and depression in the near term, but the new study is one of the first to examine its effects on health years and even decades later.
Compared to married people who had never been divorced or widowed, those who had were more likely to experience long-term health problems.
- Those who were divorced or widowed were 20% more likely to have heart disease, diabetes, cancer, or another chronic condition.
- They were also 23% more likely to have mobility problems, such as difficulty climbing stairs or walking short distances.
- Those who were divorced or widowed but then remarried still had 12% more chronic health conditions and 19% more mobility problems than married people who had never experienced divorce or the death of a spouse; but they were only slightly more likely to report depression.
Divorce Has Long-Term Impact
Sociologist and study co-author Linda J. Waite, PhD, of the University of Chicago tells WebMD that divorce and widowhood appear to have a more long-term influence on physical health than on mental health.
“Mental health seems to be much more responsive to your current state,” she says. “But if you ignore your physical health by not exercising, eating right, or seeing the doctor when you are sick, that can have a lasting impact. And that is what people tend to do when they lose a marriage to divorce or death.”
In the study, 8,652 people between the ages of 51 and 61 were surveyed about their health and past and current medical status.
Three out of four respondents were married at the time they were surveyed. Just over half (55%) had never been divorced or widowed and 21% were remarried following a divorce or death of a spouse.
Compared to married people who had never been divorced or widowed, people who had lost a spouse to death or divorce but were not remarried at the time they were surveyed were 22% more likely to have chronic health conditions and 27% more likely to have mobility issues.
They were also twice as likely as divorced or widowed people who were remarried to have chronic health problems.
The study appears in the September issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.
“People who did not remarry had significantly worse health than people who did, so remarriage helps,” Waite says. “But it does not erase the effects of being widowed or divorced.”
Waite conducted the study along with co-author Mary Elizabeth Hughes, PhD, of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Waite says the findings have implications for physicians, as well as family and friends of people experiencing divorce or the death of a spouse.
She says doctors should be especially vigilant about treating risk factors for chronic diseases like high blood pressure and high cholesterol following a divorce or spouse’s death. And having a strong social support network can also impact risk.
“This is a time when support is extremely important,” she says. “Anything that helps people deal with stress can help.”
Stress From Divorce
University of Texas at Austin researcher Mark Hayward, PhD, has studied the impact of divorce on heart disease.
In one study, he showed that divorced, middle-aged women -- even when they remarried -- were more likely to develop heart disease than non-divorced, married women.
Hayward tells WebMD 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.
But this doesn’t mean that divorce is always worse for your health than staying married, he says.
Hayward directs the university’s Population Research Center.
“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.”