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Divorce and Your Health

Divorce Leads to Poor Psychological and Physical Health in Women

By Sarah K. Spilman, Fred Lorenz, and K. A. S. Wickrama, Institute for Social and Behavioral Research, Iowa State University

Recent research released in 2006 shows that divorced women have a higher susceptibility to chronic illness, especially over a period of time, compared with married women.

According to a study of 416 rural Iowa mothers, divorce led to increases in psychological distress, as well as greater physical illness, over a ten-year span. The study, conducted by researchers with Iowa State University's Institute for Social and Behavioral Research, is part of a larger study called the Family Transitions Project, which has followed more than 500 young male and female adults and their families since 1989.

Results showed that among divorced mothers, the act of getting divorced led to higher levels of distress immediately after the divorce. Then, over the next two to three years, psychological distress declined, probably as single mothers and their children settled into a new life without the father. During this time span, there was no measurable effect on the mother's physical health.

However, ten years after the break-up, divorced mothers reported 37 percent more physical illnesses than did the married mothers in the study. The researchers documented 46 illnesses, ranging from the common cold and sore throats, to heart conditions, diabetes and cancer. This outcome of divorce on later physical health was found even after calculating for the effects of income, earlier physical and emotional health problems, and subsequent stressful life events. Researchers suspect that the differences are due, at least in part, to increased social isolation, decreased family income, and the relatively poor job opportunities and health insurance available to single mothers when they enter or re-enter the job market after the divorce.

Of the original 102 divorced mothers in the study, 40 remarried during the ten-year time span. Remarriage was found to have a positive influence on family income, which may cause an eventual improvement in health.

Stressful life events has also shown to have affected the psychological health of these women ten years after the divorce. Divorced mothers experienced a greater number of stressful life events, such as demotions, layoffs, accidents, critical illnesses, and problems with their own parents, than did married women. "According to the data, it looks like the divorced women studied are trapped in a vicious circle of financial problems and other stressful life events," said K.A.S. Wickrama, a researcher on the study. Stressful events may decline immediately after the divorce, but they appear to accumulate again over the longer term as the status of being divorced or elevated levels of chronic illness make these women more susceptible to new stressful life events.

To read more about the Family Transitions Project, please visit: http://www.isbr.iastate.edu/familytransitions

About the Authors:
Sarah K. Spilman, Fred Lorenz, and K. A. S. Wickrama are with the Institute for Social and Behavioral Research at Iowa State University.

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