University Of Chicago researchers have issued a health warning for married people who become single again, either through divorce or a spouse’s death:
You may never fully recover from the emotional wounds and physical decline caused by marital loss, even if you remarry.
As we examine these medical findings, which were reported in the New York Times, you will discover why newly single adults should be vigilant about their health care. And you will learn how to relieve or prevent chronic health problems in divorced or widowed adults.
Why does the death of your marriage or your spouse cause chronic health problems?
“When your spouse is getting sick and about to die or your marriage is getting bad and about to die, your stress levels go up,” said Linda Waite, Ph.D., a sociology professor at the University of Chicago. Dr. Waite co-authored this study which appears in the September 2009 issue of The Journal Of Health And Social Behavior.
“You’re not sleeping well, your diet gets worse, you don’t exercise, you can’t see your friends. It’s a whole package of awful events,” said Dr. Waite. She and her research team studied the health effects of divorce, widowhood and remarriage in 8,652 people over time. Why?
We recognize that the health benefits of marriage, already documented by a wealth of research studies, stem from several factors:
Married couples are better off financially. They share employer health benefits and support each other in caring for their home, family and each other.
What happens to your health when these benefits are lost?
Dr. Waite and her team’s study found that divorced or widowed adults experienced 20 percent more chronic health problems like heart disease, diabetes and cancer, compared with people who had been continuously married.
Previously married people in their 50’s and beyond were more likely to have mobility problems like difficulty climbing the stairs or walking a meaningful distance.
While remarrying led to some improvement in health, the study showed that most married people who became single never fully recovered from their physical decline associated with marital loss.
This study does not prove that marital loss causes health problems. It may be that people who don’t exercise, don’t eat well and don’t manage stress are more likely to get divorced. Yet researchers noted that these health problems were seen in divorced and widowed people alike, so the data strongly suggests a causal relationship.
How does marital loss cause health problems?
During times of high stress, we can experiences changes at the cellular level. Dr. Waite said that researchers at Ohio State University had focused on telomeres, which insulate and protect the ends of our chromosomes. They found people under stress of caring for Alzheimer patients showed a pattern of shortened telomeres and less activity of a related enzyme which could cause a 4-8 year shortening of their life span.
Dr. Waite said the stress of divorce or widowhood might take a similar toll on our lifespan.
Should spouses stay in a bad marriage for the sake of their health?
That is not recommended, since marital troubles also can lead to physical ones due to lowered immune responses. A series of experiments at Ohio State University found that wounds took longer to heal in people experiencing marital conflict and hostility, compared to people in supportive marriages.
In terms of health, is it better to have married and lost than never to have married at all?
The research says NO. Middle-age people who never married have fewer chronic health problems than those who were divorced or widowed.
How does marrying again affect your health?
A second marriage does appear to heal emotional wounds of marital loss. Remarried people in Dr. Waite’s study showed only slightly more depressive symptoms than those continuously married.
How can you use these medical studies to improve your health?
These studies indicate that married people tend to be healthier than single people, unless you remain happily single throughout your whole adult life.
If marital loss can shorten your life and a supportive marriage with little animosity can prolong your life, we clearly have incentive to not only improve our marriages but also to improve the way we grieve and rebound from the death of a marriage.
You may make it your priority to resolve all marital issues that cause animosity. If that’s no longer possible, you may do the emotional work to grieve the death of a marriage and then seek a supportive mate to create a healthy, happy relationship.
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Love deeply, be healthy and live your dreams now,