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updated 7/27/2009 2:56:20 PM ET 2009-07-27T18:56:20

Divorce can wreak havoc on a person's health, even after remarriage, a new study finds.

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Scientists have known that marriage can boost a man's health and augment a women's purse. The new study shows that divorce or losing a spouse to death can exact an immediate and long-lasting toll on those mental and physical gains.

"That period during the time that this event is taking place is extremely stressful," said study researcher Linda Waite, a sociologist and director of the Center on Aging at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. "People ignore their health; they're stressed, which is itself a health risk; they're less likely to go to the doctor; they're less likely to exercise; they're sleeping poorly."

It turns out, once you have tarnished your health, it's hard to snap back, even if you tie the knot again.

"Remarriage helps. It puts you back on a healthy trajectory," Waite told LiveScience. "But it puts you back on a healthy trajectory from a lower point, because you didn't take care of yourself for a year."

Finding that divorce and spousal death had similar impacts on a person's health suggests divorce operates like a traumatic event in one's life, according to Waite.

Mark Hayward of the University of Texas at Austin, who was not involved in the study, agreed.

"The acuteness of stress surrounding a divorce could operate a lot like a trauma as opposed to years and years of low-grade stress," said Hayward, who is also the director of the university's Population Research Center.

The new study "suggests much of health can be altered by these major turning points in one's life, like divorce, from which one doesn't recover," Hayward said.

Divorce prognosis
Waite and Mary Elizabeth Hughes of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Maryland analyzed data collected from nearly 9,000 adults ages 51 to 61 who took part in the nationally representative Health and Retirement Study.

Overall, about 20 percent of the participants were remarried, meaning they had previously been divorced or widowed, the researchers will report in the September issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior. And nearly 22 percent had previously been married but hadn't remarried. Less than 4 percent were never married.

Results showed that those who had been divorced or widowed suffered from 20 percent more chronic health conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes or cancer, compared with individuals who were currently married.

Other findings included:

  • People who never married reported 12 percent more mobility limitations, such as trouble walking or climbing stairs, than married individuals.
  • People who never married were 13 percent more likely to show signs of depression than their married counterparts.
  • Individuals who remarried reported an average of 12 percent more chronic conditions and 19 percent more physical limitations compared with the continuously married. No difference in depression was found between these two groups.

"Some health situations, like depression, seem to respond both quickly and strongly to changes in current conditions," Waite said. "In contrast, 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."

What's a couple to do?
The results don't mean spouses should stick together even when the going gets really tough. But during a divorce or after the death of a spouse, people need to make sure to focus on their health, Waite said.

Hayward notes, however, that the results give averages and that some divorces may do a body good.

"If you have a high-conflict, abusive marriage, divorce can be a relief," he said during a telephone interview. "I would never recommend that people in high-conflict, abusive marriages stay in them."

Rather, support during divorce might be key to better health outcomes.

"I'm just suggesting that if there is any room for policy it is to make [divorce] less adversarial and provide more support for those going through the divorce process," Hayward said.

© 2012 LiveScience.com. All rights reserved.

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