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For Women, Divorce Increases Risk of Heart Attack

Re-marriage lowers cardiovascular risks for divorced men, but not for divorced women.
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(Photo: nathings/Shutterstock)

(Photo: nathings/Shutterstock)

Conventional wisdom has it that divorce is tougher on men than on women. After all, women tend to have stronger social networks to rely on, and are better at processing difficult emotions. Men are, in contrast, more likely to respond by sulking and drinking, neither of which is good for one’s health.

However, that viewpoint is challenged by newly published research conducted by Duke University scholars. They report that the chance of suffering a heart attack is significantly higher among divorced women—including those who took a second husband.

“Remarriage after divorce may not confer the same health benefits for women as for men,” a research team led by sociologist Matthew Dupre writes in the American Heart Association journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes.

The risk for men was increased only for those with a history of two or more divorces. Men who re-married had roughly the same chance of having a heart attack as those who had stayed married.

Dupre and his colleagues examined data on 15,827 older Americans enrolled in the University of Michigan Health and Retirement Study. Depending upon their year of birth (which ranged from 1931 to 1953), participants were first interviewed in 1992, 1998, or 2004, and then every other year through 2010.

Information was gathered on their health, marital status, and a variety of other socioeconomic and behavioral factors. More than one-third of participants had been divorced at least once during their lifetimes. The five percent who had never married were excluded from the analysis.

The researchers found the risk of an acute myocardial infarction (a.k.a. heart attack) was significantly higher among divorced women compared to those who remained married. The risk went up among those who were divorced two or more times, but surprisingly, it stayed elevated among those who were in their second marriage.

In contrast, the risk for men was increased only for those with a history of two or more divorces. Men who re-married had roughly the same chance of having a heart attack as those who had stayed married.

All of these conclusions were drawn after adjusting for such health-related variables as race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, along with body weight and such personal habits as smoking and regular exercise.

The researchers can only speculate on the mechanisms behind these findings. Rather surprisingly, they found that the increased risks of heart attacks could not be attributed to a loss of income or health insurance, or increases in alcohol or tobacco use.

“We suspect that the acute and chronic stress associated for divorce may have played an important role in our findings for both sexes,” they write. While that very plausible theory accounts for the fact that risk increases for people with multiple divorces, it does not explain why the odds of a heart attack return to their previous level for re-married men, but not for re-married women.

“Studies have shown that spouses (particularly wives) encourage concordant health behaviors such as proper diet, exercise, and medication compliance that promote cardiovascular health,” they note. Could it be that second husbands are less nurturing in this way?

If so, they need to remember that encouraging heart health is a wonderfully symbolic way of showing how much they care.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.