Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Divorce Is Unhealthy

As our country goes through an important debate on health care, it looks like there may be an unexpected player in that debate -- divorce. That's not good news for the United States, where about 50% of all marriages end in divorce.

The Journal of Health and Social Behavior has published an article that says divorce can negatively affect a person's health. The authors were Linda Waite, a University of Chicago sociologist, and Mary Elizabeth Hughes, of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and they looked at the marital history and health indicators of 8,652 middle-aged people. Their research was funded by the National Institute of Health.

They found that divorced or widowed people have 20% more chronic health problems (such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, etc.) than people who have stayed married. And getting remarried only helps a little. Those who have remarried have 12% more chronic health problems than those who stay in a first marriage. There is only one group who were as healthy as once-married people -- those who never got married at all.

Ms. Waite said, "People who lose a marriage take such damage to their health....Losing a marriage or becoming widowed or divorced is extremely stressful. It's financially, sometimes, ruinous. It's socially extremely difficult. What's interesting is if people have done this and remarried, we still see, in their health, the scars or marks -- the damage that was done by this event.

Mark Hayward, a sociology professor at the University of Texas, agreed, saying he got similar results in an earlier study. He says, "There's no erasure of the effects of divorce. There is intense stress leading up to divorce, stresses during divorce proceedings. Think of divorce as one of the most intense stressors. It leads to what we call dysregulation [impairment] in key cardiovascular process that may be permanently altered. You're not going back to your original set point."

I don't doubt the conclusions of the study. There are few things as stressful as the loss of a spouse through divorce or death. But it does make me wonder about marriages with a high stress level, constant fighting and financial strain. Would this type of marriage also have some effect on the health of the couple? Is it better healthwise to stay in that type of marriage?

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