What Divorce Does to Women’s Heart Health, Study Reveals

Heart Health

Marriage: Women who divorce have a higher risk of a heart attack than their former husbands, research warns. Marrying again does little to cut the odds for ex-wives while, in contrast, it restores a man’s heart health. The large-scale study said women may find it harder to get over the psychological pain of their first marriage failing.

It is thought this puts the body under long-term stress which, in turn, takes a potentially deadly toll on the heart. In the first study of its kind, the US researchers tracked the health of almost 16,000 men and women for 18 years. In that time, more than a third had clocked up at least one divorce and 1,200 had suffered a heart attack.

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Women who went through one divorce were 24 percent more likely to suffer a cardiac attack than those who had remained married. This increased risk is substantial, similar to that of having high blood pressure or diabetes. For a woman who had two or more divorces, her risk of heart attack is almost double that of one who has stayed married.

In men, one divorce increased their heart attack risk by just 10 percent while two or more divorces upped the danger by 30 percent. Remarrying cut greatly or, in some cases, wiped out men’s added risk but trying matrimony again did little to help women.

Their odds of a heart attack remained high, even if they did find love again. In other words, no man is as good for a woman’s heart as her first husband.

Researcher Professor Linda George said: ‘I think there are some psychological scars that don’t heal as well for women. We joke and call it the “any-women-will-do orientation” for men.

‘They are more comfortable being married than not being married and cope with different women being their spouses. First marriages are protective for women and it’s a little dicey after that.’ The damage of divorce could not be explained by changes in lifestyle, including loss of income, or seeking solace in food, cigarettes, or drink.

So Professor George, of Duke University, North Carolina, believes the reason lies in the psychological stress triggering physical changes. Long-term stress can affect blood pressure and hormones, and raise levels of inflammation – which are all bad for the heart.

She said the best way to lessen the pain is to turn to friends for support. Keeping friendships alive after couples marry is important so they have a ready-made support network if things go wrong. ‘Don’t put all your eggs in one basket,’ advised the professor. ‘You can be too dependent on the spouse, to the exclusion of others, and that’s a recipe for pain.’

Helen Undy, of relationship counselors, Relate, said: ‘This research adds to a growing body of evidence highlighting the strong link between health and relationships. ‘We see many people who are preoccupied with thoughts about their relationship, meaning they are not sleeping well, taking time off work, or experiencing panic attacks.’

She added that living in a bad marriage can also be harmful to health and echoed the advice that support is crucial. The British Heart Foundation said it was known that mental health can affect cardiac well-being but more research was needed before being certain that divorce raised the odds of a heart attack.

The study in the journal Circulation compared being divorced with being married. Previous research has shown that those who have never married have a heart attack risk in between the two.