Divorce and living alone could lead to ill health and death for middle-aged men.
Those who live alone for more than seven years, and see at least two of their relationships end, have higher levels of inflammation in their body.
This biological response to stress is linked to dying earlier, hardened arteries, heart attacks, strokes, cancer and dementia. A study of more than 4,800 people aged 48 to 62, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, tracked their divorces and break-ups and how long they spent living alone between 1986 and 2011.
Women who experienced multiple relationship breakdowns, or spent a long time living alone, saw no increase in inflammation.
This may be because middle-aged women, compared with men of the same age, typically have larger friendship groups offering more emotional support, which helps prevent stress from affecting their health.
Men, who may live more unhealthily after divorce, had 17 per cent higher levels of two chemicals in their blood which indicate inflammation – interleukin 6 and C-reactive protein – than those who were in a steady relationship.
Divorce and living alone could lead to ill health and death for middle-aged men (stock image)
Professor Rikke Lund, senior author of the study, from the University of Copenhagen, said: ‘Evidence shows that men tend to depend more on their female partners than the other way around, so are more vulnerable if they lose them.
‘Men of the age we looked at tend to have smaller social networks than women, so are at a higher risk of loneliness, which might increase inflammation.
‘There is also evidence that men living alone may not look after themselves as well, and are more reluctant to consult a doctor for medical problems.
‘This could explain the increased levels of inflammation in men following multiple break-ups and more years living alone.’
Divorce is a ‘life-altering event’ which has previously been linked with poor mental health, cardiovascular disease and early death.
The new study, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, tracked divorces and relationship breakdowns in 4,835 people between 1986 and 2011.
Men who had two or more break-ups during this period had 17 per cent higher levels of two chemicals in their blood which indicate inflammation – interleukin 6 and C-reactive protein.
Men who had two or more break-ups during this period had 17 per cent higher levels of two chemicals in their blood which indicate inflammation – interleukin 6 and C-reactive protein
That was compared to people who had stayed continuously married or only had one relationship during the 26 years tracked.
The study also included 83 people who were widowed, which can have similar effects to a relationship ending in terms of stress.
Living alone has been linked to poorer physical function, psychological distress and early death.
Men who lived alone for seven or more years, compared to those who lived alone for no more than a year, had a level of blood chemicals linked to inflammation which was up to 12 per cent higher.
While the inflammation found in their body was low-grade, and it is more serious inflammation which is linked to conditions like cancer and hardened arteries, experts believe low-level inflammation over many years can similarly raise someone’s risk of illness and death.
The link between break-ups, living alone and inflammation was seen in men even when other factors affecting health, including low education, obesity, medication and existing illnesses, were taken into account.
Men may biologically have greater inflammation in reaction to stress than women, but the study authors also say they are more likely to ‘externalise’ stress with behaviours such as heavy drinking, which can cause inflammation, while women ‘internalise’ their feelings, leading to potentially less damaging effects.
Professor Lund said: ‘Women tend to have better support from friends and family following a divorce or break-up which can make a real difference to the effect of the stress on their health.
‘That can range from having people to talk to about their emotions, to having someone to help them move house, and we know it makes a real difference.’