Being a Child of Divorce is a Risk Factor for Early Death, Say Researchers

Written by Lori Lowe
Parental divorce was the strongest social predictor of early death in an 80-year study, say the authors of a fascinating new book called The Longevity Project. Being a child of divorce myself, I was not happy to learn that children in the study whose parents divorced during their childhood died an average of five years earlier than children from intact families.

Researchers have long known of the deleterious effects of divorce on children in the short term (leading to everything from increased academic and behavioral problems to increased drug use and suicide), but few would have guessed the extent of the long-term ramifications for the child’s (later the adult’s) health and life span.

Dr. Lewis Terman, a Stanford University psychologist, initiated this landmark eight-decade study of approximately 1,500 bright children (some from intact families and some from divorced families). The study was continued by co-authors Howard S. Friedman, PhD, and Leslie R. Martin, PhD, and a team of researchers. The book provides intriguing insights into how choices made by the study participants—from career and marriage choice to exercise and lifestyle decisions—affected their long-term health, happiness and longevity.

Even children who lost a parent through death did not suffer nearly the negative consequences as those whose parents divorced. In fact, researchers were surprised to learn the death of a parent during one’s childhood, while difficult, did not have a measurable impact on the individual’s life-span mortality risk. In other words, children could more easily adapt after the death of a parent than after their parents’ divorce.

To determine why divorce had such a significant impact, researchers assessed different variables, including the child’s personality. However, they found no link between the children’s personality types and their parents’ divorces.

There was a link between children of divorce and type of death. They found men who experienced their parents’ divorce when they were children were much more likely to die later of accidents or violence. They believe the men went on to lead more reckless lives after the divorce. In addition, both men and women who were children of divorce were more likely to die sooner from all causes, including cancer, heart attack and stroke.

Was financial hardship after the divorce to blame for the change in life span? Researchers did conclude that divorce tended to lower the children’s standard of living, which was very problematic for some (but not all) children. However, on the whole, other facts were more important than financial stability.

How was the children’s education affected by their family’s breakup? Both boys and girls from divorced homes tended to end their educational careers earlier than those who were in intact homes. This impacted boys in this generation more, because their career accomplishments and future income were lowered as a result of reduced education.

Children of divorce engaged in smoking and drinking to a greater degree than those who lived with their married parents, and of course, we know that both of these behaviors can help lead to an earlier death. “Women from intact families were more than twice as likely to avoid smoking as those whose parents divorced. And women from divorced families were more than twice as likely to be heavy smokers.“
More than just smoking or drinking per se, “the early shattering of their family security predicted a more dangerous lifestyle over the long term.”

Perhaps even more important was a fact that many of us already know—that children of divorce are much more likely to divorce themselves, and this later event increases mortality risk, most especially for men. Men and women who were unable to maintain a strong social network after their divorce suffered the most negative consequences. The number of social ties ended up to be a major mortality risk factor for all groups within the longevity study. Children of divorce tended to have weaker community ties and fewer group memberships, and divorced individuals also had fewer and weaker social ties. Therefore, children of divorce who also divorced themselves suffered a double whammy on this front.

From a social standpoint, this research impacts us all—whether we experienced parental divorce, or whether our spouses did, or whether we have been divorced, or whether our siblings, children, friends or neighbors will be. Understanding divorce’s far-reaching impact may help us make better family decisions with this knowledge in mind.

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