The link between divorce and mortality

Nicole M. King
10 September 2014
Reproduced with Permission
Family Edge

The News Story - Famous Wedding Resort to Offer "Divorce Packages"

An upstate New York hotel famous for its lavish weddings is about to get into a new side of the marriage business - divorce.

Reports the New York Post , "For a flat $5,000 fee, the divorcing parties are put up in separate rooms at Saratoga Springs' Gideon Putnam Resort for a weekend and work with a mediator to finalize the details into a signed agreement." Some of the divorcing parties will even broadcast their negotiations via a reality television show. Rob Sgarlata, a spokesperson for the hotel, does not believe that providing a venue for both weddings and divorce proceedings in the same weekend will "tarnish the hotel's reputation as a wedding venue." According to Sgarlata, the organizers of these divorces "want people to get into an environment that minimizes the stress of the situation and that's exactly what we offer."

But even the hotel's hiking trails and spa services cannot minimize the after-effects of divorce, which are a bit more serious than such "speedy divorce" arrangements might lead one to believe.

The New Research - Divorce Still Deadly

In 1897 the pioneering sociologist Emile Durkheim established that suicide rates ran considerably higher among divorced men and women than among their married peers. In the decades that followed, other sociologists discovered that mortality rates overall ran significantly higher among the divorced than among the married. In recent years, however, some scholars have wondered, how much does the linkage between divorce and elevated mortality rates still hold in a modern world where divorce has become common and relatively free of stigma? A study on that question by a team at McGill University provides clear evidence that around the world - in Boston and Beijing, in Chicago and Copenhagen, in Hoboken and Hanoi, in Tulsa and Tokyo - divorce still decidedly elevates mortality rates.

To analyze the relationship between divorce and mortality, researchers scrutinized 625 mortality-risk estimates from 104 studies, all published between 1955 and 2011, based on data for more than 600 million men and women living in 24 countries, including the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, China, Japan, Vietnam, Taiwan, Brazil, Israel, and a number of Western and European countries. Analysis of these data indicates that, around the globe, "marital dissolution is associated with a substantially increased risk of death among broad segments of the population." In simple statistical comparisons of mortality rates among divorced and separated men and women vs. married men and women, the researchers calculate a Hazard Ratio of 1.51, meaning that the mortality rate runs more than half again as high among divorced and married men and women than among married men and women.

When the researchers use more sophisticated statistical methods that take into account age and other socio-demographic variables, they still find that "marital dissolution is associated with a 30% higher risk of mortality," indicating even in these more sophisticated models, mortality rates run almost one-third higher among divorced and separated men and women than among married peers. To be sure, marital dissolution elevates the mortality risk more "for men (an increased risk of 37%) than for women (an increase in risk of only 22%)."

In interpreting the gender gap in the hazard ratio associated with marital dissolution, the researchers plausibly reason that "men experience a more dramatic decline in supportive social ties following divorce while women are better able to maintain their ties." The researchers specifically note previous research indicating that, "in comparison to women, men experienced greater declines in social support from their children following marital dissolution." In any case, the data indicate that "the difference between men and women decreases as the mean age increases."

When the researchers look at different age groups, they limn a "more substantial increase in the [mortality] risk (17% to 36% increase in risk, depending on the specific age group) for the elderly" than other researchers have found. The McGill researchers uncover "even higher risk (almost 60% increase in risk) for younger age groups."

But when the researchers shift their focus from age groups to geographical regions, they find remarkably little variation. "The analysis of differences in the risk of mortality by region failed to uncover differences in the effects of marital dissolution between most of the regions of the developed world," they report. Average hazard ratios associated with marital dissolution are "approximately equal in Scandinavia; the United States; the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand; East Europe; West Europe and Israel; and in China, Japan, Taiwan, and Vietnam." Only the hazard ratios for Bangladesh, Brazil, and Lebanon fell notably outside of the norm, though the researchers believe that even for these three countries, "this apparent difference [in hazard ratios] is not significant once other possible [statistical] confounders are taken into consideration."

The researchers do acknowledge that one of their statistical models does yield a "significant reduction" of the hazard ratio associated with marital dissolution in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand and for West Europe and Israel. However, the researchers advise "caution" in interpreting these anomalous results, noting that even this statistical model suggests that "broad cultural differences are not strong predictors of differences in the relative mortality rate associated with marital dissolution."

Finally, by comparing 1950s-era studies with more recent, 21st-century studies, the researchers show that "the risk of mortality among divorced and separated persons has been relatively stable over time." In other words, more permissive attitudes toward divorce have not made it less deadly.