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News Service

News Service:

Annette Hacker, director,
(515) 294-3720

Office: (515) 294-4777

10-27-06

lorenzwickrama

Fred Lorenz and K.A.S. Wickrama. Photo by Bob Elbert

Contacts:

Fred Lorenz, Institute for Social and Behavioral Research, (515) 294-7487, (515) 294-8196, (515) 294-8314, folorenz@iastate.edu

K.A.S. Wickrama, Human Development & Family Studies, (515) 294-4704, , s2kas@iastate.edu

Mike Ferlazzo, News Service, (515) 294-8986, ferlazzo@iastate.edu

Divorce increases chronic stress, later illness in women according to ISU study

AMES, Iowa -- There's a popular belief among spouses in bad marriages that divorce might relieve their stress and lead to a happier life. But divorce actually increased chronic stress and produced greater physical illness over a 10-year span, according to a study of 416 rural Iowa women by researchers from Iowa State University's Institute for Social and Behavioral Research.

Fred Lorenz, K.A.S. Wickrama, Rand Conger and Glen Elder produced the latest paper on their research titled "The Short-Term and Decade-Long Effects of Divorce on Women's Midlife Health," which was published last summer in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, a professional journal.

"What we found was that the act of getting a divorce produced no immediate effects on health, but it did have effects on mental health," said Lorenz. "Ten years later, those effects on mental health led to effects in physical health."

The researchers have been studying romantic relationships and marriage in middle-aged adults through Iowa Youth and Family Project and Midlife Transition Projects -- an ISU study of more than 500 young adults from an eight-county area northwest of Ames that began in 1989. The team just received a $2.5 million, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health to continue the study of romantic relationships and marriage in young adults, and the link of relationship development to changes in physical and emotional health.

The methodology

In this study, they used data from rural Iowa women who were interviewed repeatedly in the early 1990s when they were mothers of adolescent children. Of the 416 women, 102 were recently divorced mothers. The women were interviewed again in 2001.

The researchers found that in the years immediately after their divorce (1991-94), divorced women reported seven percent higher levels of psychological distress than married women, but no differences in physical illness. The increased distress among the recently divorced women was found after controlling for other sources of stress, including income, which was only about half ($20,300) the amount reported by married women ($41,400). An important factor linking divorce to later psychological distress was the experience of stressful life events, according to Lorenz.

A decade later (2001), the divorced women reported 37 percent more illness when compared to their married counterparts -- even after the researchers controlled for age, remarriage, education, income and prior health. Lorenz believes that other conditions associated with divorce -- perhaps social isolation and relatively poor job opportunities -- are important in explaining why divorced women report more illnesses a decade after their divorce.

"According to the data, it looks like they (divorced women) are trapped in this vicious circle of financial problems and other stressful life events -- such as having their safety net destroyed in the form of housing, insurance, transportation, social support, sharing in the kids, etc.," said Wickrama. "There are more than 100 events documented in the event history calendar, including such things as demotions, layoffs, accidents, critical illness, and parental problems."

Types of illness

The researchers documented 46 illnesses for the women in this study to choose from -- ranging from the common cold and sore throats, to heart conditions, diabetes and cancer. The severity of these illnesses appears to be linked to the quality of the marriage before the divorce.

"Among married couples, we predicted couples with good quality marriages did not experience early onset of hypertension, while those with bad marriages were more likely to have experienced onset of early hypertension," said Wickrama. "In 1997, we wrote one article that related marriage qualities and physical illness. We showed change in marriage quality links to change in physical illness for both men and women."

Forty of the divorced women in the sample either remarried or cohabitated with a partner. Remarriage was found to have a positive influence on family income, eventually improving health outcomes.

"We found that divorced individuals who remarried indirectly decreased the risk of health problems because they saw beneficial influences on their financial difficulties," Wickrama said. "Consistently divorced people continued to experience higher level of economic and health problems."

The researchers wrote in a related paper that women's self-reports of earlier deviant behavior -- which included adolescent delinquency -- rivaled divorce as a predictor of stressful events and depressive symptoms, suggesting that deviant behavior earlier in life may be influencing both the likelihood of future divorce and future physical and emotional health problems. They are planning future research that prospectively links childhood experiences to adult physical and mental health.

"Comprehensive panel studies that examine multiple health outcomes over time are still few in number, and more are needed if the health consequences of divorce are to be more completely understood," they wrote.

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Quick look

Researchers from Iowa State's Institute for Social and Behavioral Research found in a study of 416 rural Iowa women that divorce increased chronic stress and produced greater physical illness over a 10-year span. Fred Lorenz, K.A.S. Wickrama, Rand Conger and Glen Elder produced the latest paper on their research titled "The Short-Term and Decade-Long Effects of Divorce on Women's Midlife Health," which was published last summer in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

Quote

"According to the data, it looks like they (divorced women) are trapped in this vicious circle of financial problems and other stressful life events -- such as having their safety net destroyed in the form of housing, insurance, transportation, social support, sharing in the kids, etc. There are more than 100 events documented in the event history calendar, including such things as demotions, layoffs, accidents, critical illness, and parental problems."

K.A.S. Wickrama