Divorced participants were more likely than married participants to smoke and, as a result, had poorer lung function, which predicted early mortality, the study found.
“We were trying to fill in the gap of evidence linking marital status and early mortality,” said lead author Kyle Bourassa from University of Arizona in the US.
The findings are based on data from the English Longitudinal Study of Aging, a long-term health study of adults over age 50 living in Great Britain. The study includes seven waves of data, collected from participants every two years beginning in 2002.
The study, published in the journal Annals of Behavioral Medicine, included data from 5,786 participants out of which 926 people were divorced, separated or had not remarried.
“While the study didn’t explicitly examine why divorce seems to be associated with greater likelihood of smoking and lower levels of exercise, one possible explanation, supported by existing research, is that divorced individuals no longer have spouses holding them accountable for their health behaviours,” Bourassa said.
“If you imagine a husband or wife who doesn’t smoke and their partner does, one might try to influence the other’s behavior. In many ways, when relationships end, we lose that important social control of our health behaviors,” Bourassa explained.
It is important to note that divorce doesn’t always lead to negative health outcomes. Quality of life, for example, can significantly improve for individuals who have ended unhealthy relationships.
Still, since divorce overall continues to be linked to poorer health, knowing that smoking and exercise may be part of the explanation could help inform interventions for those who’ve gone through a separation, Bourassa said.