We already know that divorce can be bad for your checkbook and your emotional health. It turns out that it can also be bad for your physical health.
A new study, published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, a scientific journal, suggests that people who divorce are more likely to smoke and have lower levels of physical activity.
Researchers at the University of Arizona studied more than 5,700 people and used the English Longitudinal Study of Aging, a long-term adult health study of adults over 50 years old in the UK. There are seven records in the study, which are collected every two years, in early 2002. About 900 of the study participants were divorced or separated and had not remarried. The rest was married.
They reported on their life satisfaction, their frequency of exposure, their smoking status, and their lung function and inflammation. Those who were divorced or separated had a 46% increased risk of dying while studying than their partners who were still married. (The researchers controlled factors such as gender, health, age and socioeconomic status.)
Why did the health of the divorced people deteriorate? Divorced or separated participants, especially women, were less satisfied with life than their married counterparts in the study, the researchers found. This leads to an unhealthy and potentially fatal spiral: lower life satisfaction is also associated with a lower level of physical activity, and a lower level of physical activity is associated with a higher risk of early death.
That is, not all marriages are alike, and it's important to distinguish between healthy, happy, and toxic ones that could negatively impact one or both partners' health, said Jennifer Behnke, a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Juno Beach, Florida. "In a miserable relationship, you're sitting on the couch, watching TV, feeling the toxicity of resentment and not being satisfied," she said.
But that's not the first study that links divorce with a negative impact on health. A 2009 study of researchers from the University of Chicago and Johns Hopkins University found that divorced or widowed people have 20% more chronic diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes or cancer than married people.
Divorced or widowed people also have 23% more mobility restrictions than married people, such as problems climbing stairs or walking around a block. People who have never married have about the same number of chronic health conditions as married people. But they report 1
Healthier partners could even help their spouse stay healthier, Bourassa said. "If you think of a husband or wife who does not smoke and their partner does that, you could try to influence the other's behavior, and in many ways, when the relationship ends, we lose the important social control over our health behavior."
However, divorce does not necessarily lead to poor health outcomes, researchers said in the latest study. Quality of life can actually improve for people who have broken relationships that are unhealthy for them. In fact, after a divorce, individuals will often beat the gym even more when they return to the dating world, said Behnke.
"It's called a revenge body for a reason."
But smoking and exercise could be important factors to see divorced, Bourassa said. "If we know someone who is divorced, maybe we should ask," Do you smoke? Do you get enough physical activity? "He said.