Unhealthy Side Effects of a Broken Heart

Divorce could give you more than a broken heart -- it could also give you a heart attack.

The finding emerges in one of a number of pieces of research which remind us that emotional and mental states can have a dramatic effect on health.

The study suggests that the effects of divorce on physical health are significant, negative and long lasting. Another study found that the pain experienced in rheumatoid arthritis can change according to your own emotional state and, surprisingly, that of your spouse.

The study on divorce and health involved almost 9,000 people in Chicago in their 50s. What it found was that people who marry and stay married are roughly as healthy as single people in the sense that they have the same levels of chronic ill health.

But when people divorce or are widowed, the risk of suffering chronic ill health rises by 20 percent. If and when they re-marry, they become happier but that extra risk, instead of falling back to zero, falls to only 12 percent.

The increase in ill health illustrates the strong emotional toll of divorce and widowhood. In addition to the pain of the event itself, ongoing stresses take their toll: legal or funeral bills have to be paid, money must be made to stretch further and divorced or separated men in particular must leave home and find somewhere new to live.

But why doesn't re-marriage restore their health status to its previous level? Why are such people still more likely to suffer from chronic conditions than the always-married or never-married?

The researcher, Dr Linda Waite of the University of Chicago, says re-marriage does, indeed, result in more healthy living on the part of men, improves the finances of women and reduces depression.

But, she told the BBC recently, "Conditions such as diabetes and heart disease develop slowly over a substantial period and show the impact of past experiences, which is why health is undermined by divorce or widowhood, even when a person remarries."

Here is further bad news: according to the UK relationship counselling service Relate, many divorced people, without realizing it, find themselves attracted to somebody who is like the person they've just split up with.

This doubles the risk of the marriage ending in divorce and it can't do much for the health of those involved either.

The lesson is, I suppose, that if you can manage to fix the first marriage, that might be the healthier option.

In addition, anything that reduces the toll taken by marriage break-up is to be encouraged.

That includes the free mediation service run by the Family Support Agency (FSA) for separated couples -- or parents who have never lived together seeking to settle financial and parenting issues without fighting it out in the courts.

A pity then that the future of the FSA is threatened by the cuts recommended in the Bord Snip report. These cuts include the abolition of the FSA.

The intriguing findings about rheumatoid arthritis and emotional wellness come in separate research projects in Japan and Canada.

The Japanese researchers -- based in two universities in Nagoya in Japan -- found that depression seemed to increase severe pain in people with rheumatoid arthritis. This was additional to the pain caused by inflammation.

Clinicians need to address patients' psychological problems in addition to providing anti-inflammation therapy, the researchers concluded.

But it gets more complicated. Psychological help for the spouse might be just as important as help for the patient.

Researchers at the University of British Columbia found that the condition of patients with rheumatoid arthritis worsened over a one-year period if their partners suffered high levels of depression at the start.

This held true even after they screened out such factors as the patient's own depression, disability and so on.

The implications of these findings are striking. The term "a healthy relationship" is not just an empty phrase. Relationship breakdown is bad for your health. So is depression in a partner.

Clearly families need to be aware of this especially if one member has a chronic illness. Health professionals also need to be aware of this. The body/mind connection can hurt.

Padraig OMorain is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy

Print Article