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Divorce's Surprising Effect on Longevity

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LONGEVITY PROJECT

In 1990, Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin, two psychologists at the University of California, Riverside, embarked on a research project within a research project, seeking answers to the question, "What makes for a long life?"

Friedman and Martin used findings from a famous longitudinal study started in 1921 by Lewis Terman, a Stanford psychologist who followed the lives of 1,528 bright children. Terman's principal interest was in his subjects' long-term intellectual achievement. But Friedman and Martin mined the data for patterns among those who lived long, healthy lives -- and those who didn't. In their new book, The Longevity Project (Hudson Street Press, 2011), Friedman and Martin present some surprising findings. Divorce, it turns out, plays a significant role in longevity, particularly for children of divorce.

KH: Speaking as the child of divorce, I have to say that one of the most disconcerting findings in The Longevity Project focused on divorce: On average, grown children of divorced parents died almost five years earlier than children from intact families. To what do you attribute that troubling finding?

HF: As we found in many statistical analyses and case studies in The Longevity Project, certain unhealthy patterns developed, as individuals went step by step down unhealthier pathways of living. Nothing was inevitable, but the past clearly helped shape the future in recognizable ways. The children of divorce were much more likely to later get divorced themselves, which was an especially serious health risk factor for the men.

KH: You mention this in the book. Why is divorce an especially serious health risk factor for men?

LM: Individuals who had experienced the dissolution of their parents' marriage were much more likely to later have their own marriages end in divorce -- and this significantly increased their mortality risk. This pattern was particularly harmful for men, probably because of the very important role that women play as confidantes and social supports for their husbands. Indeed, The Longevity Project found that men who re-married after divorce lowered their mortality risk, and the longer they remained in their second marriage the better their prospects became.

The divorced men's problems were also partly due to bad habits set in motion by the stress of divorce, and partly due to the fact that men prone to divorce were often less dependable and conscientiousness individuals in the first place. On the other hand, re-marriage after divorce had little relation to women's later health and longevity.

In our book, there is a self-assessment of marital happiness that the reader can do, which uses many of the same questions Dr. Terman used more than a half century ago. Did this predict later health, decades later? We examined both the importance of the husband's and the wife's happiness in the marriage. As we now expected, given the reliance of the men on their wives, we found that the husband's marital happiness is what really mattered to his later health -- and to his wife's. We summed it up: "A happy man means a healthy clan."

KH: What are some of the other factors that can hurt the longevity of children of divorce?

HF: The children of divorce were also more likely to grow up to smoke and to drink heavily, with such women more than twice as likely to be heavy smokers. The boys of divorce were less likely to complete their education and accomplish as much in their careers. All of this helped account for the overall difference in longevity. Remember that these were all bright, promising children. By the way, it did not seem to be the case that difficult or troubled children were causing both the divorce and their later poor health; the children shouldn't blame themselves.

KH: This is all pretty grim. Is there any good news about children of divorce vis-a-vis longevity?

LM: Yes. The very good news is that many of these children of divorce were able to find their way to healthy social relationships by young adulthood, and those who did so were then at no higher risk of earlier mortality than those children who didn't face parental divorce. Because The Longevity Project allows us to examine the whole lifespan, we went back and traced how they did it. There were lots of healthy pathways but most important was a particular kind of resilience. The participants who had found a sense of personal satisfaction and accomplishment by midlife were buffered against the ill effects of the childhood trauma of their parents' divorce. This protective strength -- this added health-relevant maturity -- emerged in the presence of this childhood challenge. So, there really is something to say for becoming a stronger person by overcoming interpersonal hardship.