Divorced middle-aged women more prone to heart disease than those who remain married, study shows

Aug. 22, 2006

AUSTIN, Texas—Divorced middle-aged women are 60 percent more likely to get cardiovascular disease—even when they remarry—than women who remain married, according to a study from The University of Texas at Austin published in this month’s Journal of Marriage and Family.

“Divorce is one of the most stressful things a person can go through in life, so the fact that it would have such a pronounced effect on women’s health makes sense,” says Dr. Mark Hayward, an author of the study and director of the university’s Population Research Center.

Hayward and co-author Dr. Zhenmei Zhang from Bowling Green State University found that emotional distress and a decline in financial status were the main factors linking divorce to heart disease in women.

“We found that divorced women have the lowest household income and wealth, compared to married women, widows and women who remarry,” Hayward says. “Divorce clearly leads to a drop in financial resources. Add that to the emotional distress that can stem from a change in residence, loss of social support or the potential of single parenting, and divorced middle-aged women are facing incredible stress that puts them at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to their cardiovascular health.”

The researchers were surprised the negative consequences of divorce did not go away with time, showing that divorce’s effects on women’s cardiovascular health appear to linger long after the divorce.

Divorce, however, does not increase the odds of heart disease among middle-aged men.

“Men’s health is not immune,” Hayward notes. “But because men typically get heart disease at younger ages than women, the effect of divorce for men may play out before middle age. Also, divorce appears to have negative consequences for other major health problems among middle-aged men—just not cardiovascular disease.”

Hayward and Zhang collected data from the Health and Retirement Study, which tracked a nationally representative sample of nearly 10,000 men and women aged 51-61 from 1992-2000. Heart disease is the number-one killer of adults in that age range in the United States, and the National Center for Health Statistics estimates that health care costs related to heart disease and stroke in 2003 topped $2 billion.

For more information contact: Dr. Mark Hayward, 512-471-8382; Tracy Mueller, public affairs specialist, College of Liberal Arts, 512-471-2404.