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Does Parental Divorce Take A Toll On The Long-Term Physical Health Of Children?

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For over three decades, scientists and clinicians have documented the effects of divorce on the psychological well-being of children. (See Paul Amato, Journal of Marriage and Family, 2010 for a summary). Recently, researchers have begun to explore new potential outcomes of divorce.

Troxel and Matthews recently summarized the evidence regarding the ways in which martial conflict and divorce can have a negative effect on the physical health of children. Not only do they suggest that there is evidence that children's health can be comprised by marital difficulties, but they also suggest that childhood adversity can disrupt the development of the stress response in children and increase the sensitivity or reaction to stressful circumstances later in life.

Further exploring these hypotheses, researchers have begun to look into the specific health outcomes that may result from divorce. Esme Fuller-Thomson and Angela Dalton just reported (forthcoming in the International Journal of Stroke) a potential link between parental divorce and increased likelihood of a stroke. Based on data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the researchers examined the health records of 5,632 women and 3,900 men from a nationwide sample of the US population.

They took considerable effort to isolate the role of parental divorce related to stroke by excluding all individuals who reported any type of childhood abuse and those who had a parent who was a substance abuser. They also collected information about income, education, physical activity, body mass index, alcohol use, smoking, diabetes, social support, marital status, mental health issues and health care use. In short, the scientists were trying to identify all the other possible causes of stroke and make sure that none of these factors accounted for the likelihood of stroke.

Even after controlling for all these factors, parental divorce still increased the likelihood that men would suffer a stroke by three times. The scientists did not find this effect for women.

Fuller-Thomson and Dalton explain that this may happen because of a process called "biological embedding" which "proposes that early adversities may affect health across the lifespan by influencing the normal development of the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis."

Why are men vulnerable, but not women? Although there have been some reports that boys have greater risk of mental health problems than girls following divorce, the evidence has largely been mixed. Since we know very little about the circumstances of the parental divorce, it is important to wait for further studies to provide more information about gender differences regarding stroke and other physical health issues.

So what should we make of these findings? The results are too tentative for parents and practitioners to make a big deal of, though its important to note that researchers continue to identify "marital conflict" as the specific mechanism that is often at the core of these health-related findings. This should remind all parents -- cohabiting, married, divorced or remarried -- to find ways to resolve differences and work out conflicts in ways that diminish rather than escalate conflicts. There are many useful resources available to couples to help them to learn better strategies for dealing with differences.