People who divorce are more likely to smoke and less likely to exercise, new research shows.
According to researchers at the University of Arizona, divorcees are at a higher risk of early death than those who are married because of their likelihood of engaging in these unhealthy habits.
“We were trying to fill in the gap of evidence linking marital status and early mortality,” Kyle Bourassa, lead author of the study, said in a press release. “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. We also know that health behaviours are often linked to psychological variables, like life satisfaction.”
Bourassa and his team analyzed data of adults over the age of 50 from the English Longitudinal Study of Aging that included 5,786 participants, 926 of which were divorced or separated and had not remarried.
There were several data sets which included participants’ self-reported life satisfaction, exercise habits and smoking status, as well as lung function measurements and levels of inflammation.
The team then kept track of who passed away during the time the study was conducted. That’s when they found that participants who were divorced or separated had a 46 per cent increase in risk of dying earlier than their married counterparts.
Looking further into why that may be, Bourassa found a lower life satisfaction, especially among divorced women. This then predicted lower levels of physical exercise.
Those in the study who were divorced were also more likely to smoke than married participants, which resulted in poorer lung function.
The study didn’t look at why those links exist, but the team speculates that divorced people no longer have partners “holding them accountable for their health behaviours,” Bourassa said.
There’s a couple of reasons as to why this may happen.
While not all divorcees experience depression after their separation, some do, Heide says.
“Depression has a way of turning our minds deeply inwards, and we can lose the motivation to socialize,” she says. “For those who already use cigarettes to ‘decrease anxiety,’ this can lead to an increase in smoking as a coping mechanism. And without friends to get them out of the house, binge watching Netflix can seem like a good way to distract themselves from their own negative mental loops.”
O’Reilly, however, think it’s possible that it may not be the ending of the relationship itself causing these unhealthy habits, but rather the transition afterwards.
“Separating and divorce involve big changes related to housing, finance, sleep, daily interactions, parenting and employment,” O’Reilly says. “With change often comes (temporary) distress, so it’s easy to fall into bad habits.”
However, in O’Reilly’s experience, it’s women who tend to fare better than men after a divorce (although there are exceptions). This is because women tend to have stronger social support networks and are more likely to seek counselling or therapy.
Men, on the other hand, tend to be swayed by gender norms and will avoid talking about their emotional needs with friends and will miss out on sources of support. Luckily, though, this appears to be changing among young men especially, she says.
But there are things you can do that can help you through the transition and change and the divorce itself so that you take care of yourself.
First, Heide says it’s important not to isolate yourself. Find people with the sort of mental and physical health habits that will keep you on the right track, and seek pleasure and avoid pain.
Find a social group as this will help alleviate mental distress, she adds. Try joining a gym, or go to a paint night or dance class — whatever keeps you moving and socializing.
O’Reilly also warns to not accept any data you read on the internet or elsewhere, and definitely don’t use it as an excuse to avoid change.
“Make small changes at first to address potentially poor health habits,” she says. “If you’ve stopped cooking at home and find you’re eating takeout or packaged foods (perhaps because the kids are no longer with you), start with preparing one meal per day. You can pre-cook or prepare on Sundays so that you have some healthy options during the week.”
If you don’t have time for the gym, make small adjustments to your daily routine to incorporate movement, O’Reilly says. This can be taking a walk during your lunchtime at work, or parking a few blocks away from the office so that you’d have to walk a bit.
And make a list of good and bad habits you practised when you were married. This is the perfect opportunity make positive changes, and if you’re on your own you’ll have no excuses, O’Reilly points out.