Analysis of divorce and mortality rates


By Gracie S. Hsu

If you want to live longer, lose weight. So says a widely-publicized study recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

But there's actually another, more effective way to help increase your own, your spouse's, and your children's longevity, without the sweat or the bland food. It's staying married.

According to a 70-year prospective study recently reported in the American Journal of Public Health and the American Psychologist, either the breakup of one's own marriage or the divorce of one's parents reduced the average life span of a group of 1,500 gifted children studied throughout their lifetimes.

That's right. Divorce may be hazardous to your health. Men and women who at some point in time went through a divorce, even if they remarried, had a 40 percent greater risk of premature death than those who were steadily married. Those who did not remarry fared even worse. Men who remained divorced or separated were 120 percent more likely to face earlier death. Among women, the risk jumped 80 percent.

Dr. David B. Larson, president of the National Institute for Healthcare Research (NIHR) in Rockville, MD, recently released an extensive research report that further details the impact of divorce on health. Among other findings, Dr. Larson found that divorced people were more likely to be afflicted with terminal cancer, three times more likely to commit suicide, and among men, twice as likely to die prematurely from cardiovascular disease than their married counterparts. In fact, divorced men who didn't smoke had only a slightly lower risk of dying from cancer than married men who smoked a pack of cigarettes a day.

While the threat of premature mortality might not weight heavily in the minds of couples who are seeking a divorce, the startling news that their divorce might shorten the lives of their children may give reason for pause. The American Journal of Public Health study found that when parental divorce occurred before the children reached age 21, the children's risk of mortality increased by 44 percent. Moreover, children whose parents divorced were more likely to experience marital breakup themselves. But even after controlling for the dissolution of one's own marriage, parental divorce during one's childhood was still a significant predicator of premature mortality. Perhaps the once oft-quoted advice of staying together "for the children's sake" should be heeded more seriously.

Interestingly, the negative outcomes associated with growing up in a broken home can be offset by religious faith. Dr. Larson of NIHR found that religious commitment not only decrease the likelihood of divorce, but it also predicts greater satisfaction in marriage. Furthermore, several other studies have confirmed the positive relationship between religious commitment and increased longevity.

A study of an elderly population published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that the less religious had mortality levels twice as high as those of the more religious--even after controlling for age, marital status, education, race, gender, the person's health, and previous hospitalizations. Moreover, according to a 10-year follow-up of 2,700 persons in another epidemiological health study, increased church attendance was the only social factor that effectively decreased mortality rates in women.

While divorce is clearly a major public health issue, deterring divorce is admittedly a hard thing to do. But it's far from impossible. After all, weight loss is a hard sell, too. And yet, Americans everywhere will put down their Big Macs, call Weight Watchers, and join a health club so that they can lose weight an live longer.

Who knows? A whole new market to promote marriage might burgeon. TV shows could portray more married couples and fewer divorces; marriage counselors could advertise themselves as marriage and life savers; warning labels could even be adhered to marriage certificates reading, "Breaking this covenant may be hazardous to your health." If nothing else, these findings do give new meaning to the term "life-long" marriage.

Reprinted from Perspective, a publication of The Family Research Council.
Gracie S. Hsu, M.H.S., is a policy analyst at the Family Research Council, a Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy organization.


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