Divorce one of three factors ‘closely linked to an early death’

Alexandra Thompson
·3-min read
A close-up view of a young man's hands removing his wedding ring a concept of relationship difficulties
Going through a divorce may shorten a person's life expectancy. (Getty Images)

Divorce makes up one of three social or behavioural factors linked to an early death, research suggests.

Scientists from the University of British Columbia looked at more than 13,000 adults over 22 years.

Out of 57 lifestyle factors, divorce, smoking and alcohol abuse were most closely linked to the study’s participants dying during the follow-up period.

Perhaps surprisingly, never getting married was also in the top 10.

Read more: Education may be the ‘best predictor of who will live longest’

The average Briton lives to 81, while life expectancy in the US is marginally lower at 78 years old.

Physical health and the prevalence of medical conditions are always factored in when predicting mortality.

Feeling little was understood about the influence of social, economic and behavioural factors, the British Columbia scientists analysed data from the US Health and Retirement Study.

This collected information on thousands of people, with an average age of 69, between 1992 and 2008.

Social, behavioural and economic factors were then linked to deaths that occurred among the participants between 2008 and 2014.

Read more: Finding the 'meaning of life' may be key to staying healthy into old age

Of the 57 factors, the 10 most closely associated with death – in order of significance – were:

  • Currently smoking

  • Being divorced

  • A history of alcohol abuse

  • Recent financial hardships

  • A history of unemployment

  • Previously smoking

  • Low life satisfaction

  • Never marrying

  • A history of using food stamps

  • “Negative affectivity”, a “glass half empty” outlook on life

The scientists did not explain how these different factors may influence lifespan.

Some, like smoking and alcohol abuse, are clearly linked to worse health. Marital status, life satisfaction and negative affectivity are less clear, however.

It has been suggested single people may be less likely to take care of themselves or go to the doctor’s because there is no one to “nag” them.

Midsection Of Woman Smoking Cigarette
Perhaps unsurprisingly, smoking was the lifestyle factor most strongly linked to an early death. (Getty Images)

The scientists stressed not every possible hardship was addressed; for example domestic abuse was not accounted for.

Nevertheless, the results – published in the journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – indicate how different factors may influence lifespan.

“If we're going to put money and effort into interventions or policy changes, these areas could potentially provide the greatest return on that investment,” said lead author Dr Eli Puterman.

“Smoking has been understood as one of the greatest predictors of mortality for 40 years, if not more, but by identifying a factor like negative affectivity – this idea you tend to see and feel more negative things in your life – we can see that we might need to start targeting this with interventions.

Read more: Healthy habits in middle age may add a decade of 'disease-free years'

“Can we shift it and have an impact on mortality rates? Similarly, can we target interventions for the unemployed and those with financial difficulties to reduce their risk?

“It shows a lifespan approach is needed to really understand health and mortality”.

People may be surprised to learn a history of unemployment, rather than just currently being out of work, can have a lasting impact.

“Instead of just asking whether people are unemployed, we looked at their history of unemployment over 16 years”, said Dr Puterman.

“It's more than just a one-time snapshot in people's lives, where something might be missed because it did not occur.

“Our approach provides a look at potential long-term impacts through a lifespan lens”.