Dissolving a marriage is hard on everyone, but researchers say the psychological stress of a divorce can have serious physical effects on the heart, especially for women.
Women who divorced at least once were 24% more likely to experience a heart attack compared to women who remained married, and those divorcing two or more times saw their risk jump to 77%. In the study published in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, Matthew Dupre of Duke University and his colleagues found that men weren’t at similar risk. Men only saw their heart attack chances go up if they divorced two or more times compared to men who didn’t split with their spouses. If men remarried, their heart risk did not go up, while for women who remarried, their chances of having a heart attack remained slightly higher, at 35%, than that of divorced women.
These findings remained strong even after Dupre’s team adjusted for other potential contributors to heart attack, including age, social factors such as changes in occupation and job status and health insurance coverage, and physiological factors including body mass index, hypertension and diabetes. Previous studies have found links between divorce or widowhood and heart disease that were explained, at least in part, by changes in people’s access to health care and their ability to keep up healthy eating and exercise habits.
But these are the first results from tracking people over a longer period of time—18 years—to capture the cumulative effects of changes in marital status, says Dupre. “We looked at lifetime exposure to not only current marital status, but how many times someone has been divorced in the past. What we found was that repeated exposure to divorce put men and women, but particularly women, at higher risk of having a heart attack compared to those who were married.”
And it wasn’t simply changes in health insurance coverage or financial status resulting from the divorce that explained the higher heart risk. Even after Dupre’s group accounted for these, the relationship held. While he admits that the trial did not investigate exactly how divorce is seeding more heart attacks, other studies hint at a possible explanation. Dramatic life changes such as divorce, which signal an end to not only a significant relationship but potentially to stable financial and social circumstances as well, can lead to spikes in the stress hormone cortisol, which in turn can push blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar to unhealthy heights.
The long term scope of the study revealed the impact that social and life events can have on the physical functioning of the body. “The health consequences of social stresses are real,” says Dupre. For women, the 77% higher risk of heart attack connected to multiple divorces was on par with well-established factors such as hypertension (which boosts risk by 73%) and diabetes (which elevates heart problems by 81%).
That’s doesn’t mean, of course, that women should avoid getting divorced to save their hearts. “Another way to put it is to say that women who are stably married are at an increased advantage of preventing heart attacks than women who may have had to go through transitions where they weren’t,” says Dupre.
It also makes a good case for doctors including discussion about potential stressors, including lifestyle and social circumstances, in their health assessment of patients. Recognizing that divorce may be a life event that can contribute to higher heart attack risk, for example, they can monitor patients experiencing divorce more carefully, and be alert to the first signs of potential problems with cholesterol, blood pressure or blood sugar. “Understanding all of the factors that lead to a physiological response are equally important,” says Dupre. And potentially life saving.