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Divorce may lead to physical ailments and decreased mobility

Divorce and widowhood have a persistently damaging impact on health, with the effects evident years later even after a person remarries, says a new a study from the University of Chicago and Johns Hopkins University.

The study, which looked at 8,652 people aged 51 to 61, found that divorced or widowed respondents had 20 per cent more chronic health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes or cancer than their married counterparts.

The problems increased the longer people remained unhitched after a divorce or death. But even for those who remarried, the problems lingered. Participants who remarried still had 12 per cent more chronic conditions than those who were married continuously to the same partner.

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The results of the study are included in the article Marital Biography and Health at Mid-life, co-authored by University of Chicago sociologist Linda Waite and Mary Elizabeth Hughes, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health. It will be published in the September issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

The authors chalk up their correlations to stress.

Divorce harms health because of the stress involved both before the rupture and afterwards with issues such as split child care and plummeting family income. In the case of widowhood, there are the stressors of bereavement, loss of companionship, running a household alone, drop in income and in some cases, the earlier ill health of the partner.

For their study, the authors looked at a number of chronic conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, lung disease, cancer, hypertension and stroke, as well as symptoms of depression and whether their mobility was limited. Respondents were also asked to rate their own health.

"Those who have married once and remained married are … broadly advantaged," the authors write.

Divorced or widowed respondents reported 23 per cent more problems with mobility including trouble climbing stairs or walking a block, compared to married couples. Remarried participants noted 19 per cent more mobility limitations than those married to the same partner.

Respondents who never married had 13 per cent more depressive symptoms and 12 per cent more mobility problems than those married, but reported no difference in the number of chronic health conditions.

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The researchers also cite many earlier studies, all of which suggest one thing: that marriage improves health, including fewer cancers, heart attacks and colds.

"The literature suggests that the married show better health than the unmarried because the married state brings financial, emotional, and social resources that are less available outside it," the authors write.

They continue: "Over time, the health of a married person is protected, or even enhanced."

The researchers believe that the marriage and health patterns are rooted in the way illnesses develop and heal.

"Conditions such as diabetes and heart disease develop slowly over a substantial period and show the impact of past experiences, which is why health is undermined by divorce or widowhood, even when a person remarries," they write. In other words, their period of time alone contributes to health problems that can't be easily reversed through another marriage.

In past studies, men appeared to benefit physically from marriage more than women, but the researchers found few gender differences in their results.

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Their study also revealed that married folk appear to enjoy better mental health.

But that might be a one-shot deal: First marriages enhance mental health more than remarriages, the authors note.

That might be because the remarried, the authors write, face unique challenges, including stepchildren and a "lack of institutionalization of key roles."

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Zosia More

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