In a new study, researchers found living alone for several years and/or experiencing serial relationship break-ups are strongly linked to raised levels of inflammatory markers in the blood–but only in men.
Although the inflammation was classified as low grade, it was persistent, and most likely indicates a heightened risk of age-related ill health and death.
Divorce and committed relationship break-ups, which are often followed by a potentially lengthy period of living alone, have been associated with a heightened risk of poor physical and mental health, lowered immunity, and death.
In the study, the team examined data from 4835 participants, all of whom were aged between 48 and 62.
The inflammatory markers interleukin 6 (IL-6) and C-reactive protein (CRP) were measured in blood samples.
Around half the participants had experienced a partnership break-up, and a similar percentage had lived more than 1 year alone (54% of women, 49% of men).
The team found among men, the highest levels of inflammatory markers were found in those who had experienced the most partnership break-ups.
They had 17% higher levels of inflammatory markers than those in the reference group.
Similarly, levels of inflammatory markers were up to 12% higher in the group who had spent the most years living alone (7 or more).
And the highest levels of both inflammatory markers for years lived alone were observed among men with high educational attainment and 2–6 years living alone (CRP), and 7 or more years spent alone (IL-6).
But these findings were found only among the men; no such associations were found among the women.
The team says men tend to externalize their behavior following a partnership break-up, by drinking, for example, whereas women tend to internalize, manifest in depressive symptoms, which may influence inflammatory levels differently.
The average age of the participants was 54, when the full consequences of exposure to inflammatory chemicals may not yet have peaked. Men also generate stronger inflammatory responses than women of the same age.
But immune system competence tends to tail off with age, often leading to systemic low grade inflammation which is thought to have a key role in several age-related diseases, such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes.
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The study is published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.
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