A study finds that being divorced or widowed can take such a toll on health that even saying "I do" again doesn’t fix it.
Numerous studies have documented the psychological and physical benefits of a happy marriage, but the new research, from the University of Chicago and Johns Hopkins University, is among the first to document the health effects of divorce and widowhood on a wide range of health issues.
The study, published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, looked at 8,652 people between the ages of 51 to 61, assessing chronic conditions, mobility issues and depressive symptoms.
Divorced or widowed people had 20 percent more chronic health conditions than married people. They also had 23 percent more mobility limitations, such as trouble climbing stairs or walking a block.
“What is surprising or new is that even if people have been married a long time, their risk of poor health is elevated from something that happened years ago,” says sociologist Linda Waite, PhD, a sociology professor at the University of Chicago. She co-authored the study with Mary Elizabeth Hughes, PhD, assistant professor at Johns Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health.
People who lost a spouse but then remarried had 12 percent more chronic conditions and 19 percent more mobility limitations, but no more depressive symptoms, than those who were continuously married.
Waite says conditions like diabetes and heart disease develop slowly over time, which is why health is undermined by divorce or widowhood, even after a person remarries.
Waite say those who did not remarry suffered the worst health effects because they got a double whammy of sorts – suffering the negative effects of a union’s end while not reaping the benefits of another marriage. They also had worse health indicators than people who never married.
People who had never married fell somewhere in the middle. They had slightly more depression and difficulty getting around, but no more chronic health conditions, than people who had been married.
“The people who have the best health, comparing people who are the same on age, gender, education, race, ethnicity and other demographics – are the people who have been continuously married. The people who have the worst health are people who got divorced or widowed and never remarried. The people who are in between those two are people who got divorced or widowed but remarried,” she explains.
Researchers say they didn’t ask about arthritis in the study, but it could fall into the same category as other chronic conditions that affect the health of those who get divorced or widowed. “It has an inflammatory component or basis. So it ought to work pretty much the same way, like cardiovascular disease,” Waite says.
Waite says divorce and widowhood appear to adversely affect health in part because incomes drop and stress rises.
Marriage benefits both genders, but in different ways. If it’s a poor quality marriage, she says, people probably don’t get any benefits. But in general, men see health benefits and women see financial ones.
“Marriage is health protective for men because it reduces their risky behaviors – like drinking and driving, risky sex and poor diets,” Waite explains. “For women, a lot of it seems to work through finances. Marriage increases the chances that women have access to health care. It increases their financial wellbeing and it on average gives them residence in a better, safer place with less stress about money, plus someone to share the responsibility of supporting and raising their children.”
Waite says these results show the importance of reaching out to someone you love if they are going through a divorce or have just been widowed. “Encourage them to maintain and strengthen social support and social contacts and to do things to deal with stress – get exercise and enough sleep, take a yoga class or join a support group. But especially to make sure they don’t neglect their emotional and physical health,” she says.
Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, PhD, professor of psychology and psychiatry at The Ohio State University says the findings of this study are novel and have significance for the field. But she says in her view, there are components missing.
“I think what is missing is evidence for the biological underpinnings,” Kiecolt-Glaser says. “What the authors do not take into account is the quality of the marriage or the quality of the divorce.”
She says in some of her earlier work on divorce, she found that women and men who were more recently divorced had poorer immune function than those who had been divorced longer. She also found that it mattered if you had chosen the divorce, or if your spouse was the one who asked for it.
She says her research shows you are better off being the one who walked away rather than the one who was left behind. Also, spouses who continue to be preoccupied with thoughts of their ex-spouse are the ones who show the greatest differences in terms of immune function.
And she says the quality of the marriage also matters. “We certainly have ample evidence from our laboratory that chronically bad or stressful marriages are bad for your health,” Kiecolt-Glaser says.
“We reliably found that couples who were nasty or hostile in their interactions showed increases in their stress hormones and negative changes in immune function following the interactions, with women showing the largest effects, much larger than men. There are also good longitudinal data on health showing that poor marriages damage health, particularly the woman’s health.”
Almost half of all U.S. marriages end in divorce, according to the National Institutes of Health.