Contrary to popular belief, the divorce rate peaked in 1980 and has been steadily declining ever since. Still, according to American Psychological Association, nearly half of marriages in the United States end in divorce, and the divorce rate is even higher for those who remarry.
An increasing amount of research has indicated that divorce has a surprising effect on longevity. A 2011 study found that that adults who were divorced were 23 percent more likely to die younger than those who had remained married, and divorced men were twice as likely to meet an early grave than women. But it was difficult to determine whether getting divorced actually contributed to premature death, or whether the factors that caused the divorce (i.e.: substance abuse or volatile behavior), matched up with those that cause early mortality.
Now, a new study published in Annals of Behavioral Medicine has shed light on just how getting divorced might cause people to die younger.
University of Arizona researchers looked at the data of the English Longitudinal Study of Aging, a long-term health study of adults over age 50 living in Great Britain, which included seven waves of data that was collected every two years since 2002.
The data included 5,786 participants, 926 of whom were divorced or separated, and chronicled their self-reported life satisfaction, exercise frequency, and smoking habits, as well as their lung function and levels of inflammation. They also kept track of the people who died during the study, and found that, worryingly, those who were divorced or separated had a 46 percent greater risk of dying than their married counterparts.
As researchers have previously speculated, much of this is because of the bad habits that people tend to adopt in order to deal with the emotional distress of the divorce. Those who had gotten divorced were much more likely to smoke, and therefore had poorer lung functions. And, as we know too well by now, even having just one cigarette per day can shorten your lifespan.
Women in particular were more likely to report lower levels of life-satisfaction and exercise following their divorce. An increasing body of research indicates that regular exercise is crucial for longevity, as is having a positive outlook on your life.
While one of the reasons that people tend to adopt these bad habits post-separation is certainly emotional distress, the researchers believe that another reason might be that people no longer have a partner to monitor their behavior.
“Partner control of health might play a role,” lead author Kyle J. Bourassa said. “If you imagine a husband or wife who doesn’t smoke and their partner does, one might try to influence the other’s behavior. In many ways, when relationships end, we lose that important social control of our health behaviors.”
This corroborates with previous research on the so-called “ripple effect,” which has found that your partner’s behavior has a major impact on your own.
Of course, further studies are necessary in order to really determine if the link between divorce and early death is truly correlational or causational, especially since the study didn’t factor in whether participants already smoked during their marriage or started after they split up. Further studies on how divorce affects a person’s diet and relationship to alcohol are also required (after all, those photos of Sad Ben Affleck after breaking up with Jennifer Garner, indicative as they are of how a person behaves after divorce, are not enough to make up a full study).
Bourassa also suggested that we create more of a support system for people going through a divorce.
“We have interventions for people who smoke, and we have interventions for people who don’t get enough exercise, so if we know someone who is divorced, maybe we should ask, ‘Are you smoking? Are you getting enough physical activity?'” he said. “Finding that life satisfaction seems to link divorce to physical activity levels also suggests that interventions to improve people’s life satisfaction and psychological wellbeing could translate downstream to physical health improvements.”
For more on the link between marriage and physical health, read Why Marriage Is Great for Your Brain. And for tips on how to avoid getting divorced, check out the 40 Worst Mistakes Married People Make.