People are more likely to start smoking and not indulge in enough physical activities after a divorce, both of which may lead to an early death, scientists say.
A growing body of research connects divorce to a wide range of poor health outcomes, including greater risk for early death. However, the reason for the link-up is not well understood.
A study by the University of Arizona in the US hints at two possible culprits - greater chances of smoking after divorce and lower levels of physical activity.
"We were trying to fill in the gap of evidence linking marital status and early mortality," said Kyle Bourassa, psychology doctoral student at U
"We know marital status is associated with both psychological and physical health, and one route from divorce to health risk is through health behaviours, like smoking and exercise," said Bourassa, lead author of the study published in journal Annals of Behavioral Medicine.
"We also know that health behaviours are often linked to psychological variables, like life satisfaction," he said.
The study consists of seven waves of data, collected from participants every two years beginning in 2002.
The researchers analysed data from 5,786 study participants, 926 of whom were divorced or separated and had not remarried, and the rest of whom were married.
They looked at participants' self-reported life satisfaction, exercise frequency and smoking status, as well as measurements of participants' lung function and levels of inflammation.
They also kept track of who died during the study period, finding that participants who were divorced or separated had a 46 per cent greater risk of dying during the study than their still-married counterparts.
As to why that might be, researchers found that divorced or separated participants, especially women, reported lower life satisfaction than married participants. Lower life satisfaction, in turn, predicted lower levels of physical activity, which is linked to greater risk for early death.
Divorced participants also were more likely than married participants to smoke and, as a result, had poorer lung function, which predicted early mortality.
Future research should consider the roles of other health behaviours, like diet and alcohol consumption, as well as other marital statuses, such as widowed or remarried adults, Bourassa said.
In addition, studies might look at the effects of changes in behaviour - for example, quitting smoking or starting smoking for the first time - which is something the current study did not consider, he said.
More work also is needed to know if the findings regarding smoking and exercise for aging adults after divorce are generalisable to younger divorced populations, too.
It is important to note that divorce does not always lead to negative health outcomes. Quality of life, for example, can significantly improve for individuals who have ended unhealthy relationships.
Still, since divorce overall continues to be connected to poorer health, knowing that smoking and exercise may be part of the explanation could help inform interventions for those who have gone through a separation, Bourassa said.
"This is a subgroup of people that are at greater risk for these poorer health behaviours, so the goal might be to target them for interventions to hopefully improve their long-term health," he said.