Can’t help falling in love? Why divorce and separation might not be that bad for your health

11 June 2015

Middle-aged men and women who have experienced the upheaval of separation, divorce and remarriage are as healthy as couples in stable marriages, according to a new study.

Researchers from the UCL Institute of Education, London School of Economics and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine point out that individuals who have divorced and remarried are no more likely than those who have remained married to have cardiovascular or respiratory health problems in early middle age.

The study’s lead author, Dr George Ploubidis, a population health scientist at the UCL Institute of Education, was surprised to find that some men even experienced health benefits, in the long term, despite going through divorce.

“Numerous studies have found that married people have better health than unmarried people,” Dr Ploubidis says. “However, our research shows that people born in the late 1950s who live together without marrying, or who experience separation, divorce and remarriage, have very similar levels of health in middle age to those who are married.

“Previous research has also shown that men experience an initial decline after divorce, but we found that in the long term they tend to revert back to their pre-divorce health status. Surprisingly, those men who divorced in their late 30s and did not subsequently remarry, were less likely to suffer from conditions related to diabetes in early middle age compared to those who were married.”

The study is thought to be the first to investigate the links between partnership status and health in middle age in a large sample of the population that had undergone medical examinations.

The researchers analysed information on more than 10,000 people born in England, Scotland and Wales in the same week of spring 1958.

They examined the relationship status of National Child Development Study members at ages 23, 33, 42 and 46. From 2002 to 2004, when study members were aged 44 to 46, specially trained nurses visited their homes to carry out comprehensive health checks.

After studying the data, the researchers found that couples who married in their 20s and early 30s, and remained married, had almost identical standards of health to unmarried couples living together.

They also discovered that men and women who had neither married nor lived with a partner, had the worst health in middle age, with higher likelihood of cardiovascular disease and respiratory problems.

“For those people who experience separation and divorce, it appears that as long as they begin another relationship, their health does not suffer in the long term,” Dr Ploubidis explains.

“Previous research shows that there are several possible factors to explain the link between partnership status and health. For example, a partner can positively influence your health behaviour by encouraging you to exercise more, as well as provide important support in tough times. A couple’s income also appears to play an important role in affecting health.”

About two thirds of male and female study members married in their 20s and early 30s and remained married into their mid-forties.

More than 8 per cent of men and 6 per cent of women married in their 20s or early 30s, but later divorced, and then remarried or cohabited. More than 11 per cent of men and 12 per cent of women had never married or cohabited.

In 2014, there were more than 3 million cohabiting partnerships, and 12.5 million married couples in the UK. According to research by the Office for National Statistics, there were 118,000 divorces in England and Wales in 2012.

Further information

Ryan Bradshaw
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Meghan Rainsberry
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07531 864481

Read the full paper

“Life-Course Partnership Status and Biomarkers in Midlife: Evidence From the 1958 British Birth Cohort”, by George B. Ploubidis, Richard J. Silverwood, Bianca DeStavola and Emily Grundy is available online from the American Journal of Public Health website.

Notes for editors

  1. The National Child Development Study (NCDS) is following more than 17,000 people born in England, Scotland and Wales in a single week in March 1958. Since the birth survey in that year, there have been nine further surveys of the cohort members at ages 7, 11, 16, 23, 33, 42, 46, 50 and 55. The next survey is due to take place in 2018 when the cohort members will be aged 60.
  2. The NCDS is managed by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS), which is based at the Department of Quantitative Social Science, UCL Institute of Education.
  3. The study is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). The ESRC is the UK’s largest funder of research on the social and economic questions facing us today. It supports the development and training of the UK’s future social scientists and also funds major studies that provide the infrastructure for research. ESRC-funded research informs policymakers and practitioners and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. The ESRC also works collaboratively with six other UK research councils and Innovate UK to fund cross-disciplinary research and innovation addressing major societal challenges. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government. In 2015 it celebrates its 50th anniversary.
  4. The UCL Institute of Education is a world-leader specialising in education and the social sciences. Founded in 1902, the Institute currently has more than 7,000 students and 800 staff. In the 2014 and 2015 QS World University Rankings, the Institute was ranked number one for Education worldwide. It was shortlisted in the ‘University of the Year’ category of the 2014 Times Higher Education (THE) awards. In January 2014, the Institute was recognised by Ofsted for its ‘outstanding’ initial teacher training across primary, secondary and further education. In the most recent Research Excellence Framework, 94 per cent of our research was judged to be world class. On 2 December 2014, the Institute became a single-faculty school of UCL, called the UCL Institute of Education.
  5. Founded in 1826, UCL was the first English university established after Oxford and Cambridge, the first to admit students regardless of race, class, religion or gender, and the first to provide systematic teaching of law, architecture and medicine. We are among the world’s top universities, as reflected by performance in a range of international rankings and tables. UCL currently has over 35,000 students from 150 countries and over 11,000 employees. Our annual income is over £1bn.

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