More research links divorce to poor health conditions, including greater risk for early death. However, the reason for the connection is unclear.
In a new study, researchers from the University of Arizona provide two possible reasons: a higher possibility of smoking after divorce and lower levels of exercise.
The research team examined data from the English Longitudinal Study of Aging, a long-term health study of people over age 50 living in England.
The study collected from people every two years beginning in 2002.
The researchers analyzed data from 5,786 people, 926 of whom were divorced or separated and had not remarried, and the rest of whom were married.
They looked at these people’s life satisfaction, exercise and smoking status, as well as measurements of the people’s lung function and inflammation.
The team also kept track of who passed away during the study period.
The results showed that people who were divorced or separated had a 46% greater risk of dying during the study than their still-married counterparts.
As to why that might be, the team found that divorced or separated participants, especially women, reported lower life satisfaction than married women.
Lower life satisfaction, in turn, predicted lower physical activity, which is linked to greater risk for early death.
Divorced people also were more likely to smoke and, as a result, had poorer lung function, which is linked to early death.
The study didn’t explicitly say why divorce is associated with higher possibility of smoking and lower levels of exercise.
But one possible explanation, supported by other research, is that divorced people no longer have spouses caring about their health behaviors.
The researchers remind that divorce doesn’t always lead to bad health. Quality of life, for example, can become much better for people who have ended unhealthy relationships.
Still, since divorce overall is linked to poorer health, knowing that smoking and exercise may be part of the explanation could help those who’ve gone through a separation.
The researchers said”
“Partner control of health might play a role. 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.”
“We were trying to fill in the gap of evidence linking marriage and early death.”
“Now we know marriage is associated with both psychological and physical health, and one route from divorce to health risk is via smoking and exercise.”
“We also know that health behaviors are often linked to psychological variables, like life satisfaction.”
“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?’”
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