The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

The Divorce Lawyer and the Mortician

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

A striking correlation between divorce and premature death has been noted in a number of studies. That correlation is all the more impressive now that researchers at the University of Arizona have completed a comprehensive analysis integrating a raft of such studies.

The sheer scope of this new analysis (more precisely, a meta-analysis) of divorce and mortality rates is remarkable: the Arizona scholars bring together 32 prospective studies (involving more than 6.5 million people, 160,000 deaths, and over 755,000 divorces in 11 different countries). The chief finding of this prodigious collation of data is crystal clear: the data reveal “a significant increase in risk for early death among separated/divorced adults in comparison to their married counterparts.”

Quantifying the elevation of risk, the researchers calculate that when divorced adults are compared to married peers, they face “a 23% increase in the probability of being dead from all causes at each future assessment.”

Through further parsing of the data, the researchers establish that “relative to women, men evidenced significantly greater risk for early death following divorce.” Their statistical model also reveals that adults who were “younger than 65 years at the start of the study evidenced greater risk for early death following divorce than did participants who were older than 65 years at the start of the study.”

Though the risk associated with divorce seemed particularly pronounced among younger men, that risk was remarkably widespread, appearing in country after country, study after study. So robust was this linkage between divorce and early death that the researchers conclude that “the number of control variables . . . was unassociated with mortality risk.”

The researchers acknowledge that “selection effects” may account for at least part of the linkage between divorce and premature death. Health problems may themselves help cause divorce—and then death. Still, the researchers can find “no evidence that selection processes can explain the entirety of the divorce/mortality association.” In other words, it appears quite possible that divorce itself is, at least to some degree, a “causal influence on increased risk for early mortality.”

Highlighting the ways that divorce may help cause early death, the researchers note that “as a psychological and interpersonal stressor, divorce has the potential to disrupt biological processes that are important to health and well-being and, in doing so, can increase risk for health problems.” This point is clarified by evidence that “marital separation and divorce are associated with a wide range of negative health behaviors.” Compared to married peers, the divorced are much more likely to experience “severe insomnia and problems of sleep maintenance.” The divorced are also more likely to use alcohol and tobacco than are their married peers, but they are less likely to maintain healthy habits such as eating breakfast and exercising regularly.

Nor can the researchers ignore the way divorce impoverishes men and women, so exposing them to possibly lethal risks. Pointing to data showing that “men and women experience a loss of financial well-being following divorce,” the researchers cite studies indicating that “structural change in financial well-being is a robust predictor of important health outcomes.”

No one, the researchers stress, should infer from their findings that “divorce and its correlates are uniformly bad for health, whereas marriage and its correlates are uniformly good for health.” Nonetheless, the overall finding of this study is unmistakable: “on average, divorced adults are at increased risk for early mortality relative to their married counterparts.” That simple finding sums up the tragedy of tens of thousands of lives cut short prematurely since the Divorce Revolution began some 40 years ago.

(David A. Sbarra, Rita W. Law, and Robert M. Portley, “Divorce and Death: A Meta-Analysis and Research Agenda for Clinical, Social, and Health Psychology,” Perspectives on Psychological Science 6.5 [September 2011]: 454-474.)