UA study: Divorce can raise risk of early death

Be careful. Your health could plummet as if you had taken up smoking, become overweight or started drinking excessively.

A new review by the University of Arizona of more than 30 published studies found divorced adults have a significantly higher risk of early death compared with married adults.

The risk of dying early was 23 percent greater among divorced adults than married couples tracked by researchers for an average of 11 years. Researchers found the risks associated with divorce are similar to other well-established public-health risks, such as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, getting limited exercise, being overweight and drinking heavily, said the study's lead author, UA psychology professor David Sbarra.

The study did not conclusively determine that divorce leads to early death.

The paper, published recently in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, examined 32 studies involving more than 6.5 million adults in 11 countries, including the United States. The studies were published over a span of 27 years.

Sbarra's study, known as a meta-analysis, is essentially a "study of studies" that allows researchers to examine existing evidence and form broad conclusions.

Sbarra was surprised by the magnitude of risk associated with divorce. "We thought there was some risk," he said. "But we didn't think the risk elevation would be as substantial as other very serious public-health risks."

One shouldn't conclude from the research, though, that divorce is uniformly bad for health while marriage is good for health, he said.

Sbarra said other research indicates that most divorced adults go on to high levels of satisfaction and that three-quarters remarry. But some people, about 10 percent, struggle more with the adjustment. They may have difficulty getting into another relationship, become lonely, gain weight, have trouble sleeping or become clinically depressed. This can create other problems. Depression, for instance, is highly correlated with health complications such as cardiovascular disease.

Divorced men were at a significantly higher risk for early death than divorced women.

They had a 31 percent increased risk for early death over married men, while divorced women had an 18 percent increased risk. The meta-analysis defined early death as someone who died during the tracking periods of the studies.

Each of the studies statistically controlled for age, smoking, weight and medical conditions, allowing only the effects of divorce to be measured.

Sbarra said researchers are unsure whether the higher death rate for men is because men generally die younger than women.

Divorce could be associated with higher risk of early death for men, he said, because women tend to do most of the health-related planning. They remind men to see the doctor, for instance, Sbarra said, and keep them from eating too much red meat. Some red meats have high saturated fat. Saturated fat can raise cholesterol levels and boost the risk of heart disease.

One unanswered question relates to cause and effect. Does divorce lead to poor health, or does poor health lead to divorce? Some people may have characteristics or engage in behaviors that increase their risk for both divorce and poor health. For example, depression and substance abuse can boost the likelihood of divorce, and both are predictors of early death. Sbarra cautioned that correlation doesn't equal causation. Other variables may explain the risk for divorce and death, such as substance abuse.

The professor, who studies social relationships and health, said more research is needed to fully understand divorce and the body's health-related biological responses.

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